A Chinese property mogul who called President Xi Jinping a clown in a scathing critique of the ruler’s response to the deadly coronavirus is missing, two of his friends have confirmed.
Ren Zhiqiang, known as “the cannon” for his outspoken political commentary, has not replied to messages or answered his phone since Thursday evening, the two friends said. Both declined to be named for fear of political repercussions.
One said they believed he was being held by the authorities in retribution for an essay he penned in late February in which he attacked Mr Xi’s response to the outbreak.
An address Mr Xi made to 170,000 Communist party cadres’ via video chat failed to “excite” viewers but rather revealed stark ambition to build even more power, Mr Ren wrote. “Standing there was not an emperor in his ‘new clothes’, but a bare naked clown insisting on acting as emperor.”
Mr Ren has been one of the highest profile dissenters against Mr Xi’s efforts to amass personal power, for example by abolishing presidential term limits.
In 2016, Mr Ren was kicked off popular microblogging platform Weibo, where he had 37m followers, after he accused China’s leadership of “abandoning the people” when it asked for total political obedience from state media.
Mr Ren’s latest attack came as Mr Xi sought to take charge of China’s coronavirus response and to combat a surge of public anger over early mismanagement of the outbreak, which has raised one of the most significant challenges to his seven-year rule.
The ruling Communist party leadership has spared no effort to cast the radical measures it has adopted to fight the virus as necessary. Liberal Chinese thinkers have, however, criticised the leadership for censorship and the aggressive enforcement of containment measures.
Mr Ren’s essay was a total rejection of everything Mr Xi said in his speech and was a direct attack on his leadership, said Wen Yunchao, a Chinese rights activist now living in the United States, adding that Mr Ren’s previous role serving on a Beijing city government consultative body would make his criticisms sting even more.
“Since the beginning of the outbreak, Xi Jinping has continuously been questioned. Ren Zhiqiang is someone who has a background within the system, so questioning from him is a greater challenge to Xi Jinping,” Mr Wen said.