Chinese Character

Putting his foot in it

Property tycoon earns online praise for outspoken views

Putting his foot in it

Feeling the heat: Ren Zhiqiang was visited by the censors

What does property developer Ren Zhiqiang have in common with both former US President George W Bush and current Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao? Easy. They’ve all had shoes hurled at them in public.

Ren’s close encounter with flying footwear came two years ago when he was giving a speech at a property conference in Dalian. Unlike Wen, who ignored the shoe thrown in his direction during a speech in the British city of Cambridge, Ren seemed to embrace the attack.

After the incident, he joked that he had received “presidential treatment,” a reference to George W Bush’s own experience, after Dubya dodged a shoe thrown during a visit to Iraq in 2008.

So what did Ren do to deserve his own shoeing? The property tycoon seems to enjoy stoking controversy, once declaring that developers like him only erect apartment blocks with the rich in mind. Another memorable quip urged potential buyers to “go back to the countryside if you can’t afford housing”. “I’m a businessman. I shouldn’t make special considerations for poor people,” Ren then added.

So perhaps it shouldn’t come as a surprise that he has been named as one of China’s most hated people; hence his pelting with a shoe.

Still, like many of the entrepreneurs of his generation, Ren hasn’t lived a pampered life. During the Cultural Revolution, he was sent to the countryside to be “re-educated” and when he was 18, he joined the army, in which he served for 11 years.

After he was discharged in the 1980s, Ren worked for a government agency that found jobs for young people returning from their “re-education” stints in rural China. He helped open restaurants and tailoring shops, printing services and even a toy factory before stumbling into the property industry. In 1993, he became the chief executive of Beijing-based Huayuan Property and in a little less than 20 years he’s converted the company from a Rmb15 million business to one generating sales of Rmb14 billion.

Ren, 61, announced last year that he was stepping down as Huayuan Property’s CEO, although he said he wanted to keep the chairman’s title.

But although he is no longer managing daily operations at Huayuan, the former army officer is busier than ever. In an interview with China Entrepreneur, Ren revealed that he read more than a hundred books last year. And when he’s not swotting up, he’s updating his personal weibo. The diligent microblogger tweets as often as 100 times a day, which has earned him 9.6 million followers on Sina Weibo, the country’s Twitter-equivalent.

Ren likes to use his microblog to deliver sharp commentaries on China’s property market, as well as the occasional poem. He also displays a playful sense of humour. When everyone was complaining about skyrocketing home prices, Ren pointed out that the price per square metre of real estate is actually less than that of a high-end bra (he says expensive lingerie costs Rmb600 for 0.02 square metres of fabric, which corresponds to Rmb30,000 per square foot – far more than the cost of an average property).

To compound his point, Ren added gravely that even the most expensive bra “can’t shelter you from the wind and rain”.

But these days Ren has been touching more sensitive nerves. Although he has been careful not to criticise China’s one-party system, he is one of the most outspoken critics of the Chinese government. In July, he wrote: “If authority is more powerful than the law, people will turn to the authority for help; if the law is more powerful than authority, then people will turn to lawyers to resolve their issues. But if the authority doesn’t answer to people, people will turn to the triads and use violence to solve their problems.”

Needless to say, some of this commentary doesn’t sit well with officials.

Ren has also been raising the subject of democracy. In a recent weibo post, he said: “There are many people who are interested in the price war [among electronic retailers; see last week’s issue] and other people who like to talk about patriotism. If all the people channelled this passion and enthusiasm into the fight for democracy, freedom, human rights and reforms, our world is going to be a much better place.”

A few days after his comment went viral Ren became strangely quiet on weibo. There was speculation that Sina, the operator of the microblogging platform, had suspended his account. In posts that were later deleted, Ren also documented the efforts of the censors to get him to soften his pro-democracy stance, saying at one point that he had been “invited for tea”, a euphemism for receiving a visit from the authorities.

News that he was no longer able to use his account then prompted a mini outcry, with several high-profile supporters rallying to his side. Prominent economist Xu Xiaonian vowed to quit using Sina’s service if Ren’s account was not reinstated. Similarly, media personality Hong Huang urged her five million followers to republish their favourite posts from Ren.

“If an extraordinary Party member like Ren Zhiqiang has been forbidden to speak out, our society has come to a very dangerous place,” Wang Wei, director of the Chinese Museum of Finance, wrote on his weibo.

The public pressure appeared to work. On July 26 Ren was back posting again. “After laying down a few new rules, Sina has unblocked me,” he wrote.

Within a few days, he was back on form, making further comments about democracy. “If 1.3 billion people have voting rights will there still be corruption and embezzlement?” he asked.

Nor does it seem he will curtail his comments in future. Ren says he can’t and won’t keep his mouth shut. His mission, he claims, is to “serve the people” and his criticism of the government is meant to help the Communist Party improve its rule, Ren told China Entrepreneur, a magazine.

His outspoken attitude has turned some of even his harshest critics into fans. According to Sina statistics, before 2006 most of the comments on Ren’s blog were barbs and insults. But that percentage has been in steady decline in the last few years.

Ren maintains that the reason so many people are said to have disliked him in the past was because he was misunderstood. He blames the media for giving him a bad reputation by taking his comments out of context. Now he says that’s why he posts so frequently on weibo, so that he can better explain his views to the general public, as well as answer his critics directly.

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