Tea Leaf Nation

China’s Most Outspoken Real Estate Mogul Just Made Some New Enemies

Ren Zhiqiang has blasted Beijing's policies, braving restrictions on speech and state media ire.

Weibo celebrity Ren Zhiqiang steps down from property firm
--FILE--Ren Zhiqiang, Chairman of Huayuan Property Co., Ltd., attends the 2014 Netease Annual Economic Conference (NAEC) in Beijing, China, 16 December 2013. Chinese property mogul Ren Zhiqiang, well-known in China for his blunt and controversial comments about high housing prices, politics, economy and social issues, is retiring from his Beijing-based firm Hua Yuan Property Co. next month. The 63-year-old — who said online he might go into academic research and writing — has a wide Weibo following and is known as “the Cannon” for the occasional ferocity of his comments, and once provoked so much ire that he drew a thrown shoe.

As the focus of a growing personality cult and the architect of a sweeping crackdown on dissent, Chinese President Xi Jinping may be the strongest leader China has seen in decades. But that hasn’t stopped Ren Zhiqiang, a 64-year-old real estate mogul and outspoken blogger with 29 million followers on Chinese social media platform Sina Weibo, from accusing the government under Xi of steamrolling over private property rights and reviving the disastrous policies of the Cultural Revolution, one of modern China’s darkest chapters.

Ren’s comments came at a Feb. 14 economics forum in Beijing, which focused on the ruling Chinese Communist Party (CCP) approach to the slowing economy. Since taking power in Nov. 2012, Xi has touted two major structural reforms: economic reform designed to rebalance and further privatize the economy, and legal reform aimed at strengthening rule of law. Alongside the reform push, Xi has implemented further restrictions on media and Internet freedoms, as well as a campaign against the infiltration of “Western values” into Chinese society and education. But during the forum, Ren excoriated both of Xi’s keynote reform attempts (though without directly mentioning Xi), and the ideological tightening that has accompanied them.

Citing unfair lending and bankruptcy policies, Ren blasted what he perceived as Beijing’s preferential treatment of state-owned enterprises (SOEs) over private companies. As China’s economy has slowed over the past year, Ren noted, investment by SOEs has remained stable, but private investment has suffered. “The government simply does not want to protect” private assets, he said. Ren also took aim at the legal reforms, encapsulated in Xi’s catchphrase “rule of law.” Extralegal maneuvering, lack of judicial independence, and even blatant disregard for existing laws have plagued CCP governance and reduced its legitimacy in the eyes of many Chinese. “[They] call this rule of law,” Ren said, “but in reality…it’s just government power.”

Perhaps most controversial was Ren’s comparison of China’s contemporary political tide to the Cultural Revolution. A period of violence and chaos from 1966 to 1976 characterized by ideological witch hunts and disastrous economic policies, the Cultural Revolution remains a near-taboo topic for the CCP, under whose auspices the decade-long turmoil occurred. But Xi’s swift consolidation of power, his invocation of orthodox Communist rhetoric once considered moribund, and the systematic silencing of dissent under his watch have led some observers to wonder if Xi might be reviving some of the era’s ideological policies. Ren said that the government is “emphasizing guns and knives” – a reference to Xi’s Jan. 2015 remark calling rule of law a “knife” in the “hands of the party,” an expression once favored by Cultural Revolution-era ruler Mao Zedong – as well as “opposing Western values.” In doing so, Ren warned, the “winds of the Cultural Revolution are once again blowing.”

Seemingly conscious of how controversial his remarks might become, he took to his Weibo account later on Feb. 14, posting a full-length article in which he justified his criticism of the CCP’s campaign to vilify “Western values” and its recent move to eliminate the teaching of such values from college classrooms.

Chinese state-run media moved quickly to counter Ren’s claims, casting his criticisms as bordering on a call for regime change. “The heart of today’s struggle between value systems,” the reliably nationalistic newspaper Global Times asserted in a Feb. 16 article, “is a struggle between political systems.” The article impugned Ren’s invocation of the Cultural Revolution as “feeble,” claiming it was Western values, not CCP governance, that created chaos in the world. Calling Western values a “ticket to hell,” the article cited current problems in the Middle East and Ukraine as examples of the failure of supposedly “universal” Western values.

But while other influential bloggers such as Li Chengpeng and Charles Xue have experienced Weibo account closure and even forced confession, Ren has thus far avoided official reprisals. And despite China’s notorious army of censors, his post about Western values, already forwarded more than 10,000 times, has not been deleted. (According to Chinese law, once any web post containing “rumors” — a vague term often used to indicate politically sensitive material — is forwarded more than 500 times, its author is eligible for arrest.)

The candor with which Ren addressed sensitive political topics both at the economic forum and his later post surprised many Chinese netizens. Using a common nickname for the outspoken real estate tycoon, one user wrote in a comment later deleted by censors, “Big Cannon, you’ve let loose a torrent of true speech!” Some users seemed supportive of Ren’s stance. “Communism came from the West,” another user wrote in a popular comment. “And official media isn’t embarrassed to criticize Western values?” But others took exception to Ren’s assertions. Wang Shoucheng, a career consultant in Tianjin, asked “How well has the struggle [for Western values] worked for Ukraine?”

Other users expressed concern about the continuing deterioration of speech freedoms, and what that might mean for Ren. One user wondered how Ren could dare to speak candidly on such a sensitive topic, asking, “What backstage support does Big Cannon have?” Sun Liping, a professor at the prestigious Tsinghua University in Beijing, wrote on his Weibo account, “[Ren] criticizes so bluntly only because he wants to improve the system. But now, if even a few mere phrases from Ren Zhiqiang” are painted as a threat, Sun asked, “how will this end?”

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Bethany Allen-Ebrahimian is a journalist covering China from Washington. She was previously an assistant editor and contributing reporter at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @BethanyAllenEbr