Ren Zhiqiang embezzled almost $7.4 million of public funds and accepted bribes worth $184,178, according to a court verdict. Rights campaigners accuse President Xi Jinping and the Communist Party of using corruption charges to silence dissent.

A Chinese flag flutters at Beijing No. 2 Intermediate People's Court, where Huayuan Real Estate Group former chairman Ren Zhiqiang has been charged in a corruption trial, in Beijing, China September 11, 2020.
A Chinese flag flutters at Beijing No. 2 Intermediate People's Court, where Huayuan Real Estate Group former chairman Ren Zhiqiang has been charged in a corruption trial, in Beijing, China September 11, 2020. (Reuters)

A Chinese real estate tycoon and outspoken critic of President Xi Jinping has been jailed for 18 years for corruption, bribery and embezzlement of public funds, according to a court statement.

Ren Zhiqiang — once among the ruling Communist Party's inner circle — disappeared from the public eye in March, shortly after penning an essay that lambasted Xi's response to the coronavirus outbreak.

His outspokenness had earned the former chairman of state-owned property developer the Huayuan Group the nickname "Big Cannon."

Tuesday's verdict said Ren embezzled almost $7.4 million (50 million yuan) of public funds and accepted bribes worth  $184,178 (1.25 million yuan), according to a statement from the Beijing No. 2 Intermediate People's Court.

It said the 69-year-old "voluntarily and truthfully confessed all his crimes," and would not appeal the court's decision.

He was also fined $620,000 (4.2 million yuan).

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Silencing dissent?

Rights campaigners accuse Xi and the Communist Party of using corruption charges to silence dissent.

Beijing has stepped up its crackdown on civil society since Xi took power in 2012, tightening restrictions on freedom of speech and detaining hundreds of activists and lawyers.

Tuesday's verdict claimed that Ren also "abused his power" in his role at Huayuan Group, which caused more than 116 million yuan of losses to the state-owned holding company and more than $7.8 million (53 million yuan) worth of property losses for the group.

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Outspoken

The Communist Party's disciplinary watchdog launched an investigation into Ren in April, and the trial opened at a Beijing court on September 11 with a handful of supporters outside and a heavy police presence.

One supporter said they backed Ren because he "dares to speak the truth."

Ren's essay from earlier this year, which criticised Xi, has been scrubbed from China's internet — which regularly censors content that challenges the authorities — but was shared online outside China.

"This epidemic has revealed the fact that the Party and government officials only care about protecting their own interests, and the monarch only cares about protecting their interests and core position," Ren wrote, without naming Xi.

His influential blog on the Twitter-like Weibo platform attracted millions of followers before his account was closed by authorities in 2016 after he repeatedly called for greater freedom of the press.

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Well connected

The son of a former vice-commerce minister and a Communist Party member for decades before he was expelled in July, Ren was well connected with party elites.

He wrote in his memoir that he had been friends with vice-president and former anti-corruption chief Wang Qishan since they were teenagers, when Wang was assigned by their school to mentor the younger Ren.

He is also a controversial figure, particularly over his defence of China's soaring house prices — once telling Chinese media that people who had been unwilling to invest in real estate before the boom "now deserve to be poor."

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Source: AFP