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In Xi's China, sentencing of a tycoon triggers rumblings of another purge

The sentencing of iconic property tycoon Ren Zhiqiang to 18 years in prison is a blaring sign that the ruling clique in the Communist Party of China (CPC), led by general secretary Xi Jinping, is re-igniting a massive purge in the Party.

By handing out a harsh sentence to an individual who has been part of the CPC nobility, the party’s ruling circles are also sending an unambiguous message to influential and potential dissenters within its ranks. A zero-tolerance policy is now in force that will target anyone, notwithstanding their pedigree, who dare to mount a personal attack on Xi.

Ren was not just a wealthy and influential party functionary. He was part of the blue-blooded elite. Turning points in his career include his entry into the People’s Liberation Army (PLA), before he transitioned into business. In establishing links with the military, he had walked on a familiar path, including one trodden by Ren Zhengfei, the founder of the telecom giant, Huawei, who also broke out into business from the ranks of the PLA.

Ren’s father, Ren Quansheng was China’s Vice Minister of Commerce. Like many others of that generation, Ren’s parents were persecuted, and sent to work in the countryside in 1968, during the disastrous Cultural Revolution of Mao Zedong, founder of the People’s Republic of China (PRC).

But Ren’s star brightened when he joined the PLA during the Cultural Revolution, and served as a military engineer. As economic reforms kicked in during the time of Deng Xiaoping, Mao’s successor, Ren left the army and slipped into the lucrative world of business, becoming deputy general manager of Beijing Yida. There was no looking back thereafter, as Ren swiftly climbed the corporate ladder, to rise to the post of Chairman of Beijing Huayuan Property Company. In the process, the outspoken Ren, shielded by influential backers in the CPC, became a top social media celebrity with a jaw dropping following of 37 million people on Weibo, China’s twitter variant.

But Ren’s luck finally ran out when he directly targeted Xi in the heat of the Coronavirus pandemic. In a February 2020 essay, Ren blasted Xi for his role in handling the pandemic.

Commenting on one of the President’s speeches, Ren said he "…saw not an emperor standing there exhibiting his 'new clothes,' but a clown stripped naked who insisted on continuing being emperor".

Hell broke loose after that. By the beginning of April, the property icon was investigated for "serious violations of law and discipline”. That led to his expulsion from the ranks of the CPC. Fully disarmed, Ren was sentenced to 18 years in jail, on September 22.

Now banished from public life, probably forever, Ren has joined the hall of fame of several luminaries, who have been previously incarcerated by CPC’s vindictive ruling factions.

Ren’s predecessors who have been felled before include Zhao Ziyang. Zhao was a former prime minister, an economic reformer, and a comrade-in-arms of Deng. But he fell from grace after he sympathized with the pro-democracy students who were massacred in front of Tiananmen square in 1989. With Deng turning against him, Zhao faced house arrest, and subsequently died in obscurity in 2006.
Earlier Mao, among many others, had put down famous names, including two of his inner circle allies Liu Shaoqi and the Peng Dehua, as part of a bitter power struggle within the CPC.

Many China watchers have expressed alarm at Ren’s arrest. Sichuan-based journalist Li Li said the sentence means that the 69-year-old Ren will likely spend the rest of his days behind bars.

“Basically this means that they want Ren Zhiqiang to die in prison,” Li said, as quoted by Radio Free Asia (RFA). “The Communist Party cracks down harder on [dissidents] within its ranks than outsiders,” Li observed.

Hebei-based Communist Party historian Fang Ning points out that high-ranking party members, who are perceived as threats to the leadership of the time, have typically suffered heavy sentences.

With Ren’s sentencing, the rumblings of a massive on-the-way purge, under the anti-corruption label, have become louder. Preparatory moves include placing the police and state security directly under the control of the CPC. On August 26, Xi convened a meeting of 300 or so senior police and state security officials from across the country at Beijing's Great Hall of the People, the Nikkei Asian Review reported. During an elaborate ceremony, Xi handed a new blue and red flag, with the red portion of the flag symbolising the party and the need for absolute loyalty to it.

This is a major and dramatic shift. Previously, most Chinese public security and police organizations have long been affiliated with the State Council, headed by Prime Minister Li Keqiang, with the Party only exercising oversight.

Xi’s affinity to exercise direct control over the domestic security apparatus also became glaringly visible in 2018. In January of that year, the paramilitary People's Armed Police, responsible for internal security, riot control and counter-terrorism efforts, was placed under the full command of the apex Central Military Commission (CMC), headed by Xi. It had previously been under the military and government.

With full and direct control over the levers of coercive power, Xi is now set to unroll the next edition of house-cleaning..