China puts tycoon on probation for criticising policies

BEIJING (BLOOMBERG) - Chinese Communist Party officials have put an outspoken property tycoon who is a party member on a one-year probation for writing online comments criticising President Xi Jinping's propaganda policies, according to reports published Monday (May 2) by Chinese news websites.

The probation means the tycoon, Ren Zhiqiang, could be expelled from the party, which has more than 85 million members, if he steps out of line again. The news was announced on a public holiday by party discipline officials in the Xicheng district of Beijing, a sign that the party wanted to get the news out quietly, perhaps because of Ren's popular online presence.

Ren wrote comments on his microblog in February questioning a major announcement that month by Xi that Chinese news organisations must serve the party. Ren wrote on his main microblog, which had nearly 38 million followers, that the Chinese news media should serve the people and not the party.

Ren had a reputation for posting contentious statements, which earned him the nickname "the Cannon." Censors quickly deleted his posts on Xi's new policy, and a website managed by the Beijing party committee's propaganda bureau said Ren had "lost his party spirit" and taken up "opposing the party."

Then officials at the Cyberspace Administration of China, which controls Internet content, decided to muzzle him by deleting his main microblog account, which had been hosted on the Sina Weibo platform.

The Internet control agency took the unusual step of issuing a long statement explaining its move. A spokesman, Jiang Jun, said in a written statement issued Feb 28 that "Internet users have reported that Ren Zhiqiang's account had been continuously publishing illegal information, and the impact was vile."

The censure of Ren came as a surprise to his friends and online followers, and some liberal Chinese rushed to his defense. Zhang Xin, another prominent real estate developer, posted news of the deletion of Ren's Sina Weibo account the day it happened. Some Chinese scholars, journalists and party insiders wrote commentary criticising the censure.

The public pushback gave a window into the growing frustration among intellectuals over the broad crackdown by Xi on freedom of speech.

Many Chinese businesspeople such as Ren see party membership as useful, in part because of the access it allows to officials and the party elite.

Ren did not answer calls made on Monday evening to his mobile phone.

Some political analysts also noted that Ren was a friend of Wang Qishan - the powerful head of the party's anti-corruption agency and an ally of Xi, who has made the fight against corruption in the party a touchstone policy.

The analysts said there had been signs for months that there may be tensions or a power struggle underway in the top party ranks between Wang and Liu Yunshan, the overseer of the vast propaganda apparatus.

Both men are on the seven-member Politburo Standing Committee, the top governing body in China. The analysts said the attack by censors and the Internet agency on Ren might have been a swipe by Liu and his allies at Wang.

Elite party politics in China continues to be opaque under Xi, and there is often speculation of where the major players stand and who wields greater power and influence.