BEIJING (AP) — A prominent Communist party member who criticized Chinese leader Xi Jinping’s handling of the coronavirus outbreak is being investigated on suspicion of a “severe violation of discipline and law,” a joint government-party watchdog said.
Ren Zhiqiang is a former head of state-run real estate conglomerate Huayuan Group and a party member who has become known for his outspokenness on sensitive topics such as press censorship.
He dropped from sight in mid-March after publishing an online essay that criticized the leadership’s handling of the virus outbreak that originated in December in central China. While government data show COVID-19 apparently subsiding in China, more than 1.4 million people have been infected worldwide.
A one-sentence notice issued Tuesday by the party-government joint disciplinary watchdog body in Beijing’s western district said Ren was undergoing a “review and monitoring investigation” but gave no details and did not mention Ren’s article or previous statements.
The article, since deleted by China’s censors, is an example of the various criticisms of Xi and the party’s handling of the emergency that have appeared online, the one space where Chinese can exercise a modicum of free speech, albeit under the close watch of party monitors.
Criticism has chiefly focused on allegations of early efforts to squelch news of the outbreak, the true numbers of those who have become sickened and died, and efforts by Xi and the party to portray themselves as riding to the rescue when no others could lead China out of the crisis.
Chinese police also reprimanded and threatened a group of medical workers who spread word of the threat early in the outbreak, one of whom, a doctor, later died from COVID-19.
Ren, 69, had an early military career and his parents were both former high officials in the Communist party, leading some to call him a princeling, an oft-used reference to the offspring of the founders of the People’s Republic — including Xi. That status might have provided him with some immunity from prosecution, although he appears to have crossed a line by criticizing Xi’s personal leadership, whether by name or implication.
Since taking over the helm of the party in 2012, Xi has shown himself entirely intolerant of any criticism and has cracked down heavily on free media and civil society, jailing scores of journalists, lawyers and non-governmental activists on labor and other issues.