The ruling Chinese Communist Party on Monday announced disciplinary action against freewheeling "big V" tweeter and property tycoon Ren Zhiqiang, for his attacks on online party propaganda.
Ren Zhiqiang's party membership was placed on a year's probation, after he made "erroneous" comments on social media, a government statement said on Monday.
"Comrade Ren Zhiqiang has been placed under probation by the party for serious violations of political discipline," the statement said.
"Ren ... made erroneous comments on his microblog and other public, online platforms, that contravened ... party line and policies," said the statement, which was signed by the Xicheng district Communist Party discipline inspection committee.
The move comes after China's Cyberspace Administration closed down Ren's accounts on Twitter-like services Sina Weibo and Tencent Weibo in February, to "safeguard Internet security" in line with a recently passed National Security Law.
Thirty-seven million followers
Ren's Sina Weibo verified account had 37 million followers, and his outspoken comments had earned him the nickname "Cannon Ren".
China's party-controlled state propaganda machine followed up the announcement with articles attacking Ren, who had questioned the use of public funds held by the People's Republic of China for disseminating the ruling party’s political propaganda.
Ren's comment touched a raw nerve in Chinese politics, where party and state are only separate in name.
"When did the people's government change into the party's government?" Ren said in a long-deleted tweet. "Is their money the party's?... Don't use taxpayers' money for things that don't provide them with services," he wrote after President Xi Jinping made a high-profile visit to top state media organizations.
During his visit to state news agency Xinhua, state broadcaster CCTV and party mouthpiece the People's Daily, Xi reminded the media that they are the party.
He ordered them to follow the party line, focus on "positive reporting", and "speak the party's will and protect the party's authority and unity", Xinhua reported.
State-run news website Qianlong carried two articles berating Ren for causing chaos and for failing to stand up for the party.
Capitalism and Western constitutionalism
Ren was guilty of making capitalist arguments and pursuing Western constitutionalism, one article said, warning that a lack of media unity was behind the fall of the Soviet Union.
"Any behavior that stirs up chaos will inevitably encounter the people's scorn, any attempt to provoke a disturbance and stir up hate will encounter the people's opposition," the second Qianlong article said.
Beijing-based democracy activist Zha Jianguo said Ren, a second-generation member of a revolutionary family, got off relatively lightly.
"I think this outcome represents a concession, but they also want to make an example of him, because we haven't seen somebody like him [make such statements] yet," Zha said.
"The leadership is probably also worried that if they come down too hard on him, they will alienate public opinion."
Zha said the sanctions against Ren are also aimed at reinforcing internal party discipline, which recently warned members against making "rash comments" about party policy that could reach the public domain.
"The Communist Party also wants to emphasize the point about not making rash comments," he said.
Guangdong-based rights activist Wang Aizhong said the message sent by Ren's punishment is loud and clear.
"Party members aren't allowed to make public comments on party policy, nor to step away from the central party line," Wang said.
"That applies to all texts and platforms, both formal and informal, and it's normal that Ren Zhiqiang, as a party member, should be punished," he said.
Tweets commenting on Ren's punishment were rapidly deleted by Chinese Internet censors on Monday, however.
Reported by Yang Fan for RFA's Mandarin Service. Translated and written in English by Luisetta Mudie.