Ren Dapao - China's Donald Trump

Mr Ren is dubbed Ren Dapao or Ren the Cannon for the way he shoots his mouth off about everything.
Mr Ren is dubbed Ren Dapao or Ren the Cannon for the way he shoots his mouth off about everything.

Mr Ren Zhiqiang may lack the weird hair and reality TV show, but his outspoken views and property magnate background have been reason enough for him to be dubbed China's Donald Trump.

After all, this is a man who is nicknamed Ren Dapao or Ren the Cannon for the way he shoots his mouth off about everything, from China's real estate and income gap, to communism and the environment.

Like the leading Republican candidate in the US presidential race, Mr Ren, 64, simultaneously evokes fury and fascination with his politically incorrect comments. These are often posted on his Weibo account - China's Twitter-like social media platform - where he has more than 37 million followers.

Mr Ren's loose lips, however, may have bitten off more than he can chew now.

Yesterday, the cyberspace administration of China announced it had suspended the popular account. It said netizens had reported him for "spreading illegal information which had harmful effects", marking what critics say is another government clampdown on dissent.

The retired chairman of Huayuan property group recently criticised President Xi Jinping's tour of China's top state-run media outlets Xinhua, CCTV and People's Daily, during which the Communist Party leader asked for absolute loyalty.

"All the work by the party's media must reflect the party's will, safeguard the party's authority, and safeguard the party's unity," Mr Xi said during his tour on Feb 19.

Mr Ren swiftly hit out at this. "When did the people's government become the party's government?" he was quoted as saying in a Weibo post that was later deleted.

That resulted in a series of state media commentaries slamming Mr Ren for "making capitalist arguments" and failing to defend the interests of the party, of which he is a member.

One news website went so far as to characterise his motives as "vicious" and said his comments were "an attempt to topple the party's control over ideology".

Yet it is Mr Ren's penchant of speaking up that has won him so many fans since he began posting on Weibo regularly in 2010. He has criticised the government in the past for not tackling pollution and food safety, saying these were reasons why some Chinese opted to emigrate.

During the high-profile trial of disgraced politician Bo Xilai, Mr Ren called for the proceedings to be more transparent by telecasting them live. And when the deadly Tianjin blasts occurred last year, he slammed the authorities for their incompetence.

Despite making these attacks, the Shandong native has always insisted that he is loyal to the party.

Born into a "red" family, his father Ren Quansheng was a vice-commerce minister in the late 1950s. Still, like many other teenagers, the younger Ren was sent to the countryside when he was 17 for "re-education" during the Cultural Revolution. He later served in the army as a platoon leader for 11 years.

A trained engineer, he joined Beijing Huayuan Economic Construction and Development in 1984. It became the Huayuan Group in 1993 with him as president.

But his real estate background - and his unapologetic defence of China's spiralling property prices - led to him being once voted as one of the most hated men in Chinese history in an online poll.

"Those who invested in property in the past are rich today," Mr Ren once said. "Those who didn't invest in property in the past and those who were unwilling to buy deserve to be poor."

For years, he staunchly opposed government curbs on the property market to cool prices. In the face of public complaints that homes had become too expensive, Mr Ren said in 2009 that "anyone who can't afford a house in the city should go back to the countryside". In May 2010, a man hurled two shoes - one targeting developers and one for the government - at Mr Ren while he was giving a speech in Dalian, telling the tycoon to "go to hell".

Twice married with one daughter, he retired from Huayuan in 2014. In the first half of that year, the company reported revenues of 3.8 billion yuan (S$818 million). Mr Ren reportedly earned a salary of seven million yuan.

While no disciplinary action has been taken so far, a China Youth Daily commentary last Friday urged the party to act against Mr Ren, saying that he is "not above the law".

But Mr Ren has always insisted that his criticisms are meant to help the Communist Party improve its rule, saying in a 2010 interview that he is not worried because the party "allows a certain level of disagreement".

It is unclear if "the cannon" will go silent now. In a Weibo post last Wednesday which quoted a classic Chinese text, he seemed unfazed by the state media's attacks.

"A rock can be smashed, but you cannot take away its hardness. Cinnabar can be ground, but you cannot take away its redness."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on February 29, 2016, with the headline 'Ren Dapao - China's Donald Trump'. Print Edition | Subscribe