BEIJING • An influential former property executive who called Chinese President Xi Jinping a "clown" over a speech he made last month about the government's efforts to battle the coronavirus has gone missing, three of his friends told Reuters.
Mr Ren Zhiqiang, a member of the ruling Chinese Communist Party and a former top executive of state-controlled property developer Huayuan Real Estate Group, has not been contactable since last Thursday, they said.
"Many of our friends are looking for him," his friend and businesswoman Wang Ying said in a statement, saying they are "extremely anxious".
"Ren Zhiqiang is a public figure and his disappearance is widely known. The institutions responsible for this need to give a reasonable and legal explanation as soon as possible," she added.
Calls made by Reuters to Mr Ren's mobile phone went unanswered. The Beijing police and State Council Information Office also did not respond to requests for comment yesterday.
An essay which Mr Ren had shared with people he knew took aim at a speech Mr Xi made on Feb 23, which state media reported was teleconferenced to 170,000 party officials nationwide.
Copies of the essay were later posted online by others. In the essay, which does not mention Mr Xi by name, Mr Ren said that after studying the speech, he "saw not an emperor standing there exhibiting his 'new clothes', but a clown stripped naked who insisted on continuing being emperor", according to a version posted online by the US-based website China Digital Times.
He also said it revealed a "crisis of governance" within the party and that a lack of free press and speech had prevented the virus outbreak from being tackled sooner, causing the situation to worsen.
Mr Ren's alleged disappearance comes as censorship over how local media and online users discuss the pandemic has tightened in recent weeks.
The coronavirus, which emerged in China late last year, has infected more than 80,000 people in the country, killing 3,199.
Mr Ren, who gained the nickname "Cannon Ren" for his previous criticism posted on social media, was put on probation by the party for a year in 2016, as part of his punishment for publicly criticising government policy.
That year, the government ordered platforms such as the Twitter-like Weibo to shut down Mr Ren's social media accounts, which at the time had more than 30 million followers, saying he had been "spreading illegal information".
Beijing has framed the battle against the coronavirus as a "People's War" led by Mr Xi. While the draconian measures to fight the virus, including the lockdown of Wuhan city, have proven effective at containing it even as the disease is spreading rapidly in other countries, China has faced criticism for suppressing information in the early days of the outbreak.