The ruling Chinese Communist Party has confirmed it is investigating property tycoon Ren Zhiqiang after he penned an article highly critical of President Xi Jinping, amid an ongoing crackdown on critics of the president.
"Ren Zhiqiang, former deputy secretary and chairman of the Beijing Huayuan Group, is suspected of serious violations of discipline and law," the Beijing municipal branch of the ruling party's Central Commission for Discipline Inspection (CCDI) said in a statement on its website on Tuesday.
"He is currently the subject of a disciplinary investigation and supervision [measures] by Beijing's Xicheng District CCDI," the statement said, including a long bio of Ren after the short statement.
A source in Beijing had earlier told RFA that Ren was in the custody of the CCDI, which has far-reaching powers to detain ruling party members pending investigations.
Ren, 69, was detained after writing an open letter about Xi's responses to the coronavirus epidemic, the Sino-U.S. trade war and the Taiwan elections.
The confirmation of his status comes amid an ongoing crackdown on any public criticism of the Chinese president, who has ordered the nation back to work after more than two months of lockdown in virus-hit central China.
Authorities in the Chinese capital recently handed down jail terms to social media users who used their platforms to criticized Xi.
The Xicheng District People's Court handed down a two-year jail term to Jiangsu-based Qi Yiyuan, 29, and an 18-month jail term to Zhang Pancheng from Gansu province, who had previously worked as a security guard at Peking University.
'Picking quarrels and stirring up trouble'
The court found the pair guilty of "picking quarrels and stirring up trouble" after Qi posted a video of himself online wearing a T-shirt calling for freedom of expression, the release of detained activists, and the reinstatement of human rights lawyers stripped of their licenses.
"Today I am standing up to resolutely oppose the way Xi Jinping is taking us backwards," Qi says in the video. "Since Xi Jinping came to power, he has arrested a large number of rights attorneys, then tampered with the Constitution and the freedom of expression by bringing in the National Anthem Law."
"I am very angry right now, so I am standing up for human rights lawyers and calling for an end to the one-party dictatorship of the Communist Party," he says.
Zhang was jailed after posting a video complaining about some billions in aid given by Beijing to African nations.
"They are giving away U.S.$60 billion U.S. dollars, they say, but with whose consent?" Zhang says in the video. "Was this approved by the National People's Congress? The State Council?"
Zhang also calls for the release of Dong Yaoqiong, who was incarcerated in a psychiatric hospital after livestreaming herself splashing a poster of Xi with black ink via Twitter.
Dong was sent for "compulsory treatment" after she streamed live video of herself splashing ink on a poster of President Xi in protest at "authoritarian tyranny" on July 4, 2018.
Full coronavirus protective gear in court
Qi and Zhang were brought to trial in February, wearing full protective gear against the coronavirus, Qi's lawyer Liang Xiaojun told RFA.
"There was nobody in court, but they arranged for the hearing to be held," Liang said. "Qi Yiyuan and Zhang Pancheng were brought in from the detention center wearing white protective clothing from head to toe, including masks, goggles and shoe covers, so we couldn't see their facial expressions clearly."
Liang said he had argued that Qi's actions didn't constituted a crime in Chinese law.
"Qi Yiyuan is a young man with a lot of thoughts and ideas," Liang said. "He has studied in Australia and cares about the democratic process."
"He followed the July 2015 crackdown [on lawyers] online, and has always said he would go to Beijing to express his views about that," he said.
He said the sentences handed down by the court had exceeded the sentences recommended by the prosecution.
"I think they didn't want to release them because of the epidemic, so they extended their sentences," Liang said, adding that Qi had pleaded not guilty and plans to appeal.
Concerns are also growing for a university student in the eastern Chinese province of Shandong after he posted a video to social media calling on President Xi to step down.
In the video, Zhang Wenbin says he was once a "little pink" supporter of the ruling Chinese Communist Party, but that the Hong Kong protests and Taiwan presidential elections had changed his mind after he scaled the Great Firewall of government internet censorship and saw what was on the other side.
Zhang had been scheduled to graduate this academic year, but has been incommunicado since the video was posted to Twitter last week, where it received tens of thousands of views.
Sources said he had been taken in for questioning by local police, on suspicion of "picking quarrels and stirring up trouble," a charge often used to target peaceful critics of the regime.
Reported by Gao Feng for RFA's Mandarin Service. Translated and edited by Luisetta Mudie.