BEIJING (Reuters) – An influential former Chinese property executive who called 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.
Ren Zhiqiang, a member of China’s ruling Communist Party and a former top executive of state-controlled property developer Huayuan Real Estate Group, has not been contactable since March 12, they said.
“Many of our friends are looking for him,” his close friend and businesswoman Wang Ying said in a statement to Reuters, describing them as being “extremely anxious”.
“Ren Zhiqiang is a public figure and his disappearance is widely know. The institutions responsible for this need to give a reasonable and legal explanation for this as soon as possible,” she said.
Calls made by Reuters to Ren’s mobile phone went unanswered.
The Beijing police did not immediately respond to requests by phone and fax for comment on Sunday. China’s State Council Information Office did not immediately respond to a faxed request for comment.
An essay Ren shared with people he knew in recent weeks took aim at a speech Xi made on Feb. 23, which state media reported was teleconferenced to 170,000 party officials nationwide. Copies of his essay were later posted online by others.
In the essay, which does not mention Xi by name, Ren said 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 by China Digital Times, a U.S.-based website.
He also said it revealed a “crisis of governance” within the party, and that a lack of free press and speech had prevented the outbreak from being tackled sooner, causing the situation to worsen.
Ren’s disappearance comes as censorship over how local media and online users discuss the epidemic 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.
Ren, who gained the nickname “Cannon Ren” for previous critiques posted on social media, was put on probation from the party for a year in 2016 as part of a punishment for publicly criticizing government policy.
That year, the government ordered platforms such as the Twitter-like Weibo to shut down Ren’s social media accounts, which at the time had more than 30 million online followers, saying he had been “spreading illegal information”.
Beijing has framed the battle against coronavirus as a “People’s War” led by Xi.
While the draconian measures to fight the virus, including the lockdown of the city of Wuhan, have proven effective at containing it even as the disease spreads rapidly in other countries, China has faced criticism for suppressing information in the outbreak’s early days.
Reporting by Beijing Newsroom; Writing by Brenda Goh in Shanghai; Editing by Tony Munroe and Michael Perry