Outspoken former property mogul and now-former Weibo celebrity Ren Zhiqiang seems to have finally gone too far with China’s top Internet watchdog closing down his various social media accounts where only last week he made more than 37 million followers.
In a statement released on Sunday, a spokesperson for the Cyberspace Administration of China said that popular social media sites like Sina Weibo and Tencent’s QQ were told to remove Ren’s accounts for continuously spreading “illegal messages that had vile impact.”
The spokesperson added that well-known social media figures like Ren must be “especially aware of how to utilize their influence properly.”
The move comes after Ren, former chairman of the Huayuan Property Company, took to Weibo earlier this month to criticize President Xi Jinping’s tour of state media headquarters in Beijing, in which the president called upon journalists to pledge absolute loyalty to the Party and to protect its authority and unity.
Shortly afterward, Ren wrote that instead of the Party, Chinese state media should serve the people. He argued that news outlets should be in the business of serving those who pay the bills, the taxpayers.
Last Monday, Ren got his first public taste of what the Party thought of his outburst on Weibo. The news website Qianlong.com, which is affiliated with the Beijing municipal party committee, published an editorial, accusing Ren of spreading anti-Community Party sentiment and even of advocating for the overthrow of the Party in favor of Western-style constitutional rule.
This isn’t the first time that Ren has been accused of harboring such goals. Back in September, he responded to critics by firmly declaring that he was not “anti-party” in a long essay, arguing that he was merely raising some criticisms about the CCP’s past and present policies. Ren remains a Party member.
Ren becomes the biggest “Big V” on Weibo to fall in quite some time. Back in 2013, China launched a prominent crackdown on some of social media’s most influential figures who were critical of the central government, detaining outspoken investor Charles Xue among others. Xue was later released after confessing on video to patronizing prostitutes and voicing his support for the Internet crackdown.
While discussion of Ren’s sudden removal from social media has been silenced on Weibo, prominent Chinese thinkers have taken to Twitter to express their views on the matter.
“If you don’t speak up for Ren Zhiqiang, later on, no one will dare speak up for you. Whether right or wrong, defend other’s rights to speak their minds,” writes journalist Jason Ng.
Some, like CCP scholar Cai Xia have defended Ren Zhiqiang’s right to free speech on constitutional grounds, while others have dismissed this possibility.
“The constitution could not protect Liu Shaoqi, how could we pretend that it will protect Ren Zhiqiang?” posted veteran Chinese journalist Ja Jia.
On Twitter, Chinese rights lawyer Liu Xiaoyuan argued that while the law should be able to defend Ren’s rights, in practice, the courts will not protect Internet users’ rights to appeal and will not accept the case. “Ren Zhiqiang can only climb over the Great Firewall and use Twitter,” he writes.
In 2014, Ren stepped down as head of his property company. He has always been popular and influential on social media where he is called the “Cannon” for being unafraid to voice his controversial views on a variety of issues to his more than 37 million Weibo followers.
In the past, he has generated controversy by suggesting that young people should not be able to afford houses and that people who aren’t able to afford homes should just return to their village. After one of his critics threw a pair of shoes at him during a speech, Ren joked that the man was likely someone who couldn’t afford to make the down payment on a home.
He has also feuded with Chinese state media in the past, calling CCTV “the dumbest pig on earth,” in a post on Weibo from 2014.