A decade ago the property tycoon Ren Zhiqiang was one of the highest paid bosses in China. Back then he also started to be known as “Ren the Cannon” for his controversial comments, typically about issues in the real estate sector. Looking for a like-for-like comparison, some international newspapers even took to describing him as “China’s Donald Trump”.
After stepping down as chairman of Huayuan Property in 2014, the Cannon turned his fire on more political subjects. In doing so, his reputation also changed overseas. In a report earlier this year the New York Times described him as a “loyal Chinese critic”, while The Hill, a Washington-based newspaper, even lauded him as “China’s conscience”.
We reported in April that Ren had been missing for a few months and that the Cannon’s social media accounts had gone strangely quiet (see WiC491). News then broke that the 69 year-old was under investigation for corruption charges.
News of Ren’s trial – and more specifically its verdict – began to make the rounds on social media this week. On Tuesday, a Beijing court published a statement announcing a sentence of 18 years in jail. Among various crimes, the Communist Party of China (CPC) member was found guilty of embezzling Rmb111 million ($16.2 million) in funds from state-owned enterprises and accepting bribes of nearly Rmb20 million.
Ren notably fluffed the official line in 2016 when Chinese leader Xi Jinping was tightening the Party’s media grip. Xi instructed media bosses that state-run outlets should all “have the Party as their family name”. Ren dared to differ, arguing that newspapers should owe their first allegiance to the Chinese people.
Amid the early stages of the Covid-19 outbreak this year, Ren is also said to have penned an article that criticised the Party’s handling of the pandemic and spoke dismissively of a “clown” at the top of government.
“The CPC is making an example that it cannot tolerate anyone ‘wrecking the wok that their rice is cooked in’,” HK01, a Hong Kong-based news portal, explained of Ren’s fate.
Ren is considered a hongerdai, or ‘red second-generation’, as his father was one of the CPC’s early revolutionaries (Ren says that the North Korean dictator Kim II-sung once held him when he was a baby). His 18-year jail term is also identical to the sentence given to Wu Xiaohui, the chairman of disgraced Anbang Insurance and another hongerdai (local media said Wu is the former grandson-in-law of Deng Xiaoping).
While Ren was fined Rmb4.2 million, Wu was ordered to forfeit Rmb10.5 billion in assets (there are claims that another Rmb75.2 billion was confiscated later; see WiC505).
The Cannon might have learned a lesson from Wu’s experience in court. While Wu made efforts to overturn the judicial verdict, according to the court statement Ren “voluntarily confessed to all of his crimes” and opted not to appeal.
At one point Anbang’s assets were said to have nearly topped Rmb2 trillion (Ren’s former employer Shanghai-listed Huayuan is much smaller and now worth about Rmb5.5 billion). Anbang also said last week it had applied to regulators to formally cease its business operations. Dajia Insurance, a new company set up to take over the best of Anbang’s assets, is close to a decision about bringing in new investors, state media has reported.
Anbang isn’t the only high-flying conglomerate to be brought back to earth by regulators. The debt-laden HNA Group has also been struggling with a nasty change of status. Since 2019 the Chinese courts have heard at least 279 complaints about the Hainan-based aviation group’s unpaid debts. As a result, its boss has also been named in the laolai list – an official record of “discredited individuals” that is open to the public. That blacklisting means that chairman Chen Feng will find it impossible to book tickets for flights or high-speed trains. Access to five-star hotels, nightclubs and golf courses is banned as well.
But at least he’s not in jail…
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