Authorities in China have announced they will prosecute property tycoon Ren Zhiqiang after he penned an article highly critical of President Xi Jinping, amid an ongoing crackdown on critics of the Chinese leader.
The Xicheng district branch of the ruling Chinese Communist Party's disciplinary arm, the Central Commission for Discipline Inspection (CCDI) in Beijing, said in a statement that it had expelled Ren from the party and handed over the case materials to the municipal prosecutor's office for prosecution.
Ren was expelled for "violations of party discipline and the law," the CCDI said.
It said he had "brought country and party into disrepute," exhibited disloyalty to the party, and behaved in a dishonest manner, resisting investigation.
"Ren ... used his power for personal gain, wining and dining on public funds in violation of regulations," the CCDI. He had also caused "major losses" to state coffers, it said, adding that at least some of Ren's assets were being confiscated.
A Beijing-based lawyer who declined to be named said he had expected the authorities to proceed in this way.
"The main reason for all of this was that he made comments that were inconsistent with the official line as laid down by the Central Committee," the lawyer said. "Basically, it was because he wrote an article calling on Xi to step down, so this is clearly retaliation."
Legal expert Liu Tao agreed.
"Anyone with dissenting opinions will be taken down and labeled [as a troublemaker]," Liu said.
“They will say they are disloyal to the party; it's the same attitude as we had during the Cultural Revolution [1966-1976]."
Outspoken political journalist Gao Yu said Ren is being prosecuted for speech crimes.
"Speech crimes in China are crimes," Gao said. "Nobody is allowed to criticize major government policies, let alone the supreme leader."
Guangzhou current affairs commentator Wang Aizhong said it is typical of the party's disciplinary system to base its allegations around bribery and corruption -- which is ubiquitous among officials at every levels.
"This is [Xi Jinping's] revenge," Wang said. "If Ren refuses to confess ... he is very likely to serve a jail sentence."
A former colleague of Ren's at his Beijing Huayuan Group surnamed Zhang said he had a reputation as an engaging speaker -- not a common trait among high-ranking political or commercial leaders in China -- and was a "cheerful and straightforward" person to work with.
An associate of Ren's surnamed Chen said he is politically fairly "enlightened" compared with many others in Xi's "princeling" faction of veteran revolutionary families.
"We could all see this coming a long way off," Chen said. "I don't think the legal process will be very transparent."
Expelled from the Party
Ren, 69, was stripped of his Communist Party membership after writing an open letter about Xi's responses to the coronavirus epidemic, the Sino-U.S. trade war and the Taiwan elections.
Sources have said investigators handled the letter -- in fact a long and highly critical article -- as an instance of "internal strife"
within the ruling party.
Xi was reportedly furious at the article, saying Ren was "incorrigible," and designated Ren's letter an "act of defiance against me."
The letter attributed to Ren doesn't mention Xi by name, but criticizes his policies, including the president's insistence that the media are part of the same family as the ruling party, and must always represent its interests.
"When the media have the same name as the party, it's the people who are left out," the letter said. "The coronavirus epidemic in Wuhan has shown us just how true that is."
The article, titled "The lives of the people are ruined by the virus and a seriously sick system," doesn't mention President Xi by name, but it takes aim at decisions made under his direct command, nonetheless, including the decision to go ahead with a mass Lunar New Year banquet for thousands of people that resulted in a huge cluster of COVID-19 cases in the weeks that followed.
Xi has ordered China's media to follow the party line, focus on "positive reporting," and "speak the party's will and protect the party's authority and unity."
Ren was berated by state media in 2016 for causing chaos and for failing to stand up for the party, and for "pursuing Western constitutionalism."
Reported by Qiao Long and Sing Man for RFA's Mandarin and Cantonese Services. Translated and edited by Luisetta Mudie.