China’s ruling Communist Party has expelled an outspoken and prominent property tycoon who denounced the country’s authoritarian leader, Xi Jinping, paving the way for his criminal prosecution and escalating its efforts to quash dissent among the elite.
The party announced the expulsion of the tycoon, Ren Zhiqiang, late Thursday, and said that it had seized his assets for “serious violations of discipline and law” that included the possession of golf club memberships. Officials also took aim at Mr. Ren’s family, accusing him of “colluding with his children to accumulate wealth without restraint.”
The moves against Mr. Ren, 69, appeared designed to send a chill over the country’s entrepreneurs and other business leaders and demonstrate the party’s resolve to use him as an example to show that no one was above its demands of unflinching political loyalty.
He was accused of “smearing the party and country’s image, distorting the party and the military’s history, being disloyal and dishonest with the party” and of resisting the party’s investigation into him — phrasing that suggests he has refused to admit any wrongdoing.
Mr. Ren, a veteran party member and former chairman of Huayuan Properties, a real estate development company, was detained in March after criticizing Mr. Xi’s response to the coronavirus outbreak. He is likely to face criminal charges in China’s opaque and often- unforgiving legal system.
Mr. Ren’s friends said that the party’s harsh treatment of Mr. Ren was excessive.
“This is blatant political persecution,” Wang Ying, a retired entrepreneur and friend of Mr. Ren’s, said in a post on WeChat, a popular messaging app. “This is a rare good man, a good citizen who is responsible and ready to take responsibility, an entrepreneur who played his role and followed the law.”
“I’m proud to have a friend like you,” Ms. Wang wrote.
Under Mr. Xi, who rose to power in 2012, the Chinese authorities have investigated or detained scores of lawyers, journalists and scholars who have challenged the party line, often on spurious charges. The crackdown has intensified in recent months, as the party has come under intense criticism for its handling of the coronavirus, its imposition of new national security laws in Hong Kong and the ongoing crackdown on Muslims in the western region of Xinjiang.
“Xi has zero tolerance for political dissent, let alone any leeway for being openly mocked,” said Jude Blanchette, an analyst at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a research institute based in Washington, D.C. “From Hong Kong to Xinjiang, it’s clear that Xi and the party will close the fist when they sense a security or political challenge to their core rule, international outcry be damned.”
As Chinese business executives have attracted devoted followings in recent years, the party has worked more aggressively to bring them under its control. China depends on entrepreneurs for innovations that drive its economy, but officials also worry their celebrity could pose a threat to the party’s dominance.
Mr. Xi told a meeting of entrepreneurs in Beijing on Tuesday that one of their most important aims should be to “enhance their patriotism.”
“Patriotism is the glorious tradition of our country’s outstanding entrepreneurs in modern times,” he said, according to a transcript published by Xinhua, the official news agency.
Mr. Ren, a bold commentator who earned the nickname “The Cannon,” went missing in March after writing an essay criticizing the party’s response to the coronavirus outbreak, which emerged in the central Chinese city of Wuhan in late December.
In the essay, Mr. Ren said the party’s strict limits on free speech, including the silencing of whistle blowers, had exacerbated the crisis. At one point, he referred obliquely to Mr. Xi, who has tried to craft an image as a commanding, transformative leader, as a power-hungry “clown.”
“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,” Mr. Ren wrote. He said he hoped the party would “wake up from ignorance” and oust the leaders getting in its way.
The party discipline committee in Beijing on Thursday pointed to Mr. Ren’s writings in outlining his alleged misdeeds.
Party officials also accused Mr. Ren of using public funds to pay for private expenses, setting the stage for corruption and embezzlement charges. Those expenses included golf club membership cards, the announcement said. The party has long used golf to conjure up images of luxury and excess; Mao once called it a “sport for millionaires.”
The announcement said the party was seizing Mr. Ren’s “illegal gains” and transferring his case to prosecutors. It accused him of “using public power as a tool for personal gain.”
It is not the first time that Mr. Ren has faced punishment for criticizing Mr. Xi. In 2016, the party placed him on a year’s probation for denouncing Mr. Xi’s propaganda policies in comments online and shut down his social media accounts, where he had attracted tens of millions of followers.
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Mr. Ren, the former leader of a state-run company and a friend to influential Chinese politicians, is a well-known member of the establishment who joined the Communist Party when he was 23. His expulsion highlights fears within the party that any criticism from its own members could undermine its grip on power, activists say.
“Ren Zhiqiang is not a radical dissident, but a decades-long loyal Communist Party member who advocated for political reform,” said Yaqiu Wang, a China researcher at Human Rights Watch. “The Communist Party has no tolerance of any kind of criticism towards the party, even if it is made with the intention to improve the party’s governance.”
The party has in recent months detained several other prominent figures who have criticized Mr. Xi’s handling of the coronavirus outbreak.
Xu Zhangrun, a law professor who had repeatedly denounced Mr. Xi’s authoritarian policies, was briefly detained this month after writing essays blaming officials for delays and obfuscation in the early days of the epidemic. The police accused Mr. Xu of consorting with prostitutes, a charge his friends said was untrue and used as a slur to discredit him. He has since been dismissed from his teaching position at Tsinghua University in Beijing, friends say.
Xu Zhiyong, a legal activist, was detained in February, activists say, after accusing Mr. Xi of trying to conceal the coronavirus and calling on him to step down. He was formally arrested last month.
As Mr. Xi, one of China’s most powerful leaders in decades, looks to further strengthen his rule amid the coronavirus crisis, he is most likely worried about threats to his leadership within elite political and business circles, analysts say.
Erin Baggott Carter, assistant professor at the School of International Relations at the University of Southern California, said Mr. Ren’s expulsion is “a warning to other C.C.P. elites to toe the line,” referring to the Chinese Communist Party.
She said Mr. Xi’s popularity among elites and the broader public could be suffering amid a series of challenges, including unemployment and tensions with the United States.
“He cannot tolerate dissent, particularly from powerful elites with public support,” she said, referring to Mr. Xi. “These elites could most challenge his leadership.”