Following the launch of popular social media apps such as Sina Weibo and WeChat in 2010, a new breed of opinion leaders picked up a following in China. Known locally as gongzhi – literally, ‘public intellectuals’ – these influencers could amass hundreds of millions of online followers.
Perhaps – at that time – the government wanted to make a case for freedom of expression in China after the withdrawal of some of the foreign internet giants, most notably Google, which exited the Chinese search engine market the same year after refusing to cooperate on restricting search results.
Initially the gongzhi were allowed to make critical assessments of some of the Chinese authorities. Whistleblowing even led to the downfall of some senior officials (including the former internet tsar Lu Wei, see WiC390).
Many of the best-known gongzhi came from the real estate market, a sector that captures a lot of public attention, such as Pan Shiyi of SOHO China, Wang Shi of Vanke and Huayuan Property’s Ren Zhiqiang.
Regular WiC readers will be familiar with the trio of tycoons. Ren, in particular, has been so outspoken that he picked up the nickname “Ren the Big Cannon”.
However, Ren is now very quiet and he has been uncontactable since March 12, his friends told Reuters. The abrupt disappearance seemed ominous and the speculation was confirmed last week, when the anti-corruption watchdog in Beijing – where Huayuan is based – announced that Ren had been detained for “grave violations of Party discipline and national law”.
That looks likely to mean that Ren has been caught up in Chinese President Xi Jinping’s sweeping anti-graft campaign, although the international media has been linking the 68 year-old’s disappearance more with a widely forwarded article that he is said to have written in early March.
The article cited the government’s crackdown on press freedom as a key reason for its clumsy initial handling of the coronavirus outbreak. Although the piece did not mention Xi by name, it alluded to powerful figures that had bungled the response to the pandemic.
“I see not an emperor standing there exhibiting his ‘new clothes,’ but a clown who stripped naked and insisted on continuing to be an emperor,” the article pointed out.
In all fairness, no one except Ren could confirm if he was the author in question. His own Sina Weibo account was deleted some time ago after he questioned Xi’s insistence that state media outlets should be unswervingly loyal to the Party (see WiC315). His Party membership was put into a year’s probation too.
The “stern investigation and punishment of Ren Zhiqiang’s public voicing of wrong remarks” was later cited by disciplinary officials as one of their top achievements for that year.
While Ren’s punishment did not earn much media attention in 2016, the foreign press is taking more of an interest in the former business leader this time. For instance, the Guardian suggested Ren was a victim of the censors, which have tightened up how the pandemic is discussed in the media. The offending article, the British newspaper said, was shared by Ren with people he knew as a means to take aim at a speech by Xi in February that was delivered via teleconference to 170,000 Party cadres nationwide (see WiC484).
Already feeling the political heat, Ren had already switched to more creative pursuits like sculpture and performance art. The New York Times reported that he had locked himself into a small work studio in December – a performance gesture that meant visitors could only see him through a small window or through an open roof.
This ‘artistic act’, the newspaper explained, was “to show his isolation after the government barred him from social media and giving speeches”.
“The sudden silence of Ren Zhiqiang, a vocal member of the Communist Party, signals a retreat from the principles that led China out of poverty,” the New York Times concluded, describing the retired executive as a “loyal Chinese critic”.
The Hill, a Washington-based newspaper, has taken Ren on as more of a champion, even hyping him up as “China’s conscience and hope to save the Chinese people” this week.
But do the people back behind the Great Firewall see Ren in the same way as his global admirers?
Ren is no ordinary blogger. He is one of the rare hybrids of gongzhi and hongerdai, or ‘red second generation’. His father Ren Quansheng was one of the revolutionaries that helped the Communist Party seize power and later became a deputy commerce minister. According to Ren junior’s earlier weibo posts, his mother went to school with the late North Korean leader Kim Il-sung, who even held him in a photo when Ren was a baby.
In a memoir published in 2013, Ren also mentioned that China’s former anti-corruption tsar Wang Qishan, now the Chinese vice president, was his ‘counsellor’ in high school.
Ren’s connections to the political elites, plus his later climb to the chairmanship of Huayuan Property, a major SOE in the early 1990s, means that his gongzhi status has not always rung true with the general public.
Indeed, Ren has always been a highly controversial figure, with some of his critics describing him as “one of the most hated developers”. So much so that he even had a shoe hurled at him during a speech he gave in 2010 (see WiC162).
Back then Ren’s commentary was largely related to the real estate market. For example, in remarks made in 2010, he suggested that “China’s property prices are still way too low” and that “young people should never be able to afford to buy their own homes [too early]”.
After he resigned as Huayuan’s chairman in 2011, Ren’s weibo posts turned more political, taking him into riskier areas. His transformation came at a tricky time: Xi Jinping took top spot as president and Party leader in 2012, asserting his authority in a more forceful way. That process contributed to Ren’s now-deleted comments over Xi’s media demands in 2016.
Dissent, Ren told others in the past, is the highest form of patriotism. Yet not everyone in China has been convinced, with some lambasting him as “a propagandist of Western constitutionalism” (in reaction to having underachieved personally as a hongerdai).
The wider popularity of the gongzhi has also paled in recent years and the term has become more derogatory. Partly that is a result of the government’s tightening of media controls. Some online celebrities, ThePaper.cn has noted, have also been exposed for behaviour that was “far from watertight”. Some of the gongzhi have also been too talkative on too many topics – meaning their views are no longer taken as seriously by the public.
Given the sensitivity of Ren’s case, Chinese social media has been pretty silent over the news of his investigation. But the case comes as a vivid reminder that while the Chinese internet is packed with criticism of companies, products and celebrities, there are serious dangers in offering too many views on political topics.
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