A wealthy Chinese real estate developer who wrote a scathing essay lambasting President Xi Jinping, calling him a power-hungry “clown” over coronavirus, has reportedly disappeared, according to a report from the New York Times on Sunday.
Ren Zhiqiang, who was given the nickname “The Cannon” for his online outspokenness, criticized the Communist Party for restricting free speech during the coronavirus outbreak which he said helped its spread. The coronavirus, also known as COVID-19, has killed 3,100 people and infected another 80,000 in China alone.
Radio Free Asia reported that Ren, 69, was detained on Thursday, and is being held at a Central Commission for Discipline Inspection (CCDI) training facility in a suburb of Beijing, according to Han Hianchao, an overseas democracy activist.
In the March 13 essay titled “The lives of the people are ruined by the virus and a seriously sick system,” Ren blamed the Chinese government for the rapid spread of the virus, which originated in Wuhan, China. He also accused the government of trying to silence whistle-blowers. Although he didn’t name Xi directly, it was clear Ren was referring to the Chinese Communist Party chairman.
“I see not an emperor standing there exhibiting his ‘new clothes,’ but a clown who stripped naked and insisted on continuing to be an emperor,” he wrote. “You don’t in the slightest hide your resolute ambition to be an emperor and your determination to destroy anyone who won’t let you.”
Ren, a Communist Party member, has been critical of the Chinese government before. In 2016, he called out the country’s propaganda efforts in comments online. He was given one year of probation by authorities, meaning he can be kicked out of the party if he steps out of line again. Ren has been closely monitored ever since.
A friend of Ren’s, Wang Yin, told the New York Times that he is “very worried about him.”
“I will continue to look for him,” Wang added.
More details have been emerging about China’s efforts to crack down on dissent and cover up the coronavirus outbreak. Ren’s disappearance is a worrying sign that the Chinese government is escalating its crackdown on free speech, activists told the Times.
“The epidemic has brought out the worst of Xi Jinping,” said Yang Jianli, a U.S.-based activist. “He is so determined not to give an inch, rightly understanding an inch would mean hundreds of miles.”
Ren appears to be the latest outspoken critic who has been silenced by Chinese authorities. The whistleblower who first brought attention to the coronavirus, a Chinese doctor in Wuhan, was reprimanded for warning the public about the virus. The doctor, Li Wenliang, 34, died later in the hospital from the coronavirus.
Chinese citizen journalist and lawyer Chen Qiushi, was also detained after reporting on the virus from the front lines in Wuhan.