Disappeared Tycoon Ren Zhiqiang: "The Emperor Has No Clothes"

One of China’s most prominent dissenting voices has gone missing.

As Li Yuan writes in the NY Times,

The disappearance of Mr. Ren, a longtime critic of the Chinese government, adds to fears that China is sliding backward and abandoning the reforms that saved it from extreme poverty and international isolation. Mr. Ren was no radical — he was a decades-long loyal Communist Party member, the former leader of a state-run company and a friend to some of China’s most powerful politicians. He emerged in what now seems a distant time, from the 1980s to the period before Mr. Xi became top leader, when the party brooked no challenge to its rule but allowed some individuals to question some of its choices….

Like Mr. Xi, Mr. Ren was born into party royalty…He was also well connected. He has been friends with Vice President Wang Qishan of China since he was in junior high. Mr. Ren wrote in his 2013 autobiography that Mr. Wang would sometimes call him late in the evening and chat for hours.

Mr. Ren won respect from government officials because they came to believe his criticisms were made in good faith. Dissent, he often told others, is the highest form of patriotism.

“I believe Ren Zhiqiang is 90 percent like us,” wrote Ning Gaoning, a respected executive who has run some of China’s biggest state-run conglomerates, in the introduction for Mr. Ren’s 2013 autobiography.

In one sense, it is a minor miracle that Mr. Ren — nicknamed the Big Cannon for his tendency to air his provocative views — managed to stay out of jail for so long.

Mr. Ren became an important national voice between 2010 and 2015, when Weibo, China’s equivalent of Twitter, became a public arena where people shared their grievances and debated ideas.

By early 2016, he had nearly 38 million followers on Weibo. But party attitudes toward expression were changing.

That same year, Mr. Xi declared that all Chinese news media had to serve the party. No Chinese leader since Mao Zedong had made that obligation so explicit. Mr. Ren shot back on Weibo, writing that the news media should serve the people, not the party, or the people would suffer.

Retribution was swift. His Weibo account was deleted. His party membership was suspended for a year. His passport was taken away. Members of his family weren’t allowed to leave the country. He faced constant investigations and interrogations.

Then came the coronavirus outbreak. When doctors working with the disease tried to publicly warn China about the outbreak, they were threatened by government officials. For Mr. Ren, friends said, this confirmed his argument that a media that serves the party couldn’t serve the people.

…He shared [the following] essay with a few friends. Three days after his 69th birthday, he disappeared. His assistant and his son have disappeared, too.

Ren Zhiqiang, a retired real estate developer, in 2014. Friends say he disappeared this month. 

Ren Zhiqiang in 2014. Getty Images.

See below for an abridged translation from the anonymous twitter account YouShu 优述 who gave me permission to repost. I cut out maybe 30% of it to make it fit in the newsletter—see his original translation here. As YouShu writes, “It is smart, outspoken and plainspoken, filled with anger over the Party’s failures and Xi’s personal refusal to accept responsibility, as well as concerned about the future of his country. It is no holds barred stuff.” In lieu of his translation fee, YouShu had me donate to GiveDirectly.

Also, stick around till the end for China Twitter Tweets of the Week.

There have been loads of media reporting and sharing online about the central government’s national ‘170,000 people meeting’ on February 23rd; it was supposedly the most-attended event in Party history. Way bigger than the Lushan Conference, which had 7,000 attendees, it was more significant too, and some called it a ‘Great Meeting’.

Online, several people used all manner of empty boasts and flattery to talk about this meeting’s great significance, they particularly emphasized the General Secretary’s most important and lengthy speech - it inspired the heart, it laid out a wise and correct strategic vision, it clearly showed the world the right way to fight the virus.

At that time, when the entire country was cheering madly about the Great Leader’s speech, it seemed that China had returned back to the Great Era of the Great Leap Forward, that it had reverted to a time when everyone was waving their red flags, holding up their Little Red books, shouting “10,000 years, 10,000 years, 10,000 years” for the Leader. 

I was also curious and so I seriously studied that speech, but what I saw was completely opposite to the stuff in the media and online about it’s ‘Greatness’. Standing there was not some Emperor showing us his “new clothes”, but a clown with no clothes on who was still determined to play emperor. Even though he was clutching some rags in an attempt to cover up the fact he wasn’t wearing any clothes, he couldn’t cover up his ambition to be emperor, and his ambition to destroy whoever might want to stop him.

The speech had five sections, I’ll take them one by one.

About the Early Part of Virus Prevention Work

The ‘7,000 meeting’ can indeed go down in China’s history as the first crisis in the Communist Party’s time in government. It introduced the phrases ‘Don’t be scared of criticism, dare to accept some criticism, dare to do self-criticism”. It made an investigation into, and came to a critical judgment of, the ‘Anti-Rightist movement’, ‘The Great Leap Forward’, and all those false-reporting problems, and at the end, Liu Shaoqi used the phrase “Three/Seven” to describe the fact that these were all 70% man-made disasters. At the meeting, Mao finally a self-criticism: “Everything was a mistake of the Party Centre, and that comes down to my responsibility, and indirectly I also have some personal responsibility too, because I am the Chairman.” He made a self-criticism, afterward he did some work to redress the error, and that’s how the crisis passed. [Jordan: Of course, a few years later Mao ended up killing many of those who criticized him at the Lushan Conference…]

This big meeting, perhaps it’s the same - we’re also facing a crisis in the governance of the Party - but we didn’t see any suggestions for criticism at this meeting, there was no exploration of, or disclosures about, the real situation, there was no investigation into the reasons for the virus break out, and certainly no one made any self-criticism or took responsibility.

They only want to use ‘great achievements’ to cover up their own scandal, and at the same time, use all sorts of Party-controlled media, and the so-called ‘propaganda education and opinion guidance’ system, to order and perfect the information-delivery system, to propagandize the Centre’s policy, all those fascinating and moving achievements, to guide the ‘positive energy’ of public opinion etc. in order to firmly shut down all calls for finding out what really happened. In firmly shutting down any talk about the responsibility for the virus, in not recognizing the value of whistle-blowers, it’s just owning up to the uselessness of the system and of policy!

But this kind of cover-up propaganda, it basically can only cheat those who want to be cheated, there’s no way it can cheat those who believe in facts and reality.

 In history, the emperor still assumed responsibility, there was still self-criticism at the ‘7,000 people meeting’, self-criticism and acceptance of error, but at this great ‘170,000 people meeting’, there was only praise and credit offered, no reasons, no reality, no responsibility.

How on earth was this like the ‘7,000 person meeting’, it was just like a Tiananmen Square reception of the Red Guards!

About current measures to strengthen control of the epidemic

The heart of this bit of the speech is in “sternly curbing by law opportunistic, vicious attacks on public opinion”!

This phase of preventing the epidemic is all about telling society that the current situation is the whole Party & the whole country together, we’re all on the same boat…If a comprehensive victory cannot be won, then I die, if I die then the Chinese Communist Party will die, and if the Chinese Communist Party dies, China will then die too!

Our traditional understanding of imperial power is that the country is under the supreme ruler and officials live for the emperor; we’re all in the same boat, our fates are bound together. If there’s no emperor, there’s no country, and there’ll certainly be no positions of power for all his officials. So, it can only be ‘live and die together in the same boat’; the first priority is to protect the boat, protect the emperor - that’s the only way to keep the officials and the people safe.

In a modern country, where the people are in charge, it’s not that everyone is in the same boat, and it’s certainly not that the governing party and the governing party’s leader are tied together with the same fate. In a democratic system, then the democratic institutions can choose who serves as the ship’s captain, and one can recall or replace the captain. At the same time, not only can you swap out the captain, but you can also dismiss the chief officer and some of the crew too.

Even in contemporary China, it’s the same, while there doesn’t inevitably have to be one senior leader, and there inevitably doesn’t have to be a ruling party, but it’s impossible not to have protection for the people’s rights and interests.

In this epidemic, you can see reality, the Party is protecting the Party’s interests, officialdom is protecting its interests, the supreme ruler is only protecting his core position and interests. It’s precisely this kind of system which only heeds the destiny of the emperor, it never cares about the people’s situation. When the epidemic had already broken out, no one dared to tell the people without the authorization of the supreme ruler.

When the epidemic became uncontrollable, the emperor became a wise commander, tying up the whole Party and country together with him on the same boat, forcing everyone to take responsibility for the emperor.  The emperor can any time replace any official who doesn’t protect imperial power or who isn’t completely devoted, and he can use the ‘same boat, same life’ method to require everyone to fight this war for the Party, to deal with this great challenge for the Party.

If there was no mistake by the emperor, would there then be this crisis and ‘great challenge’?

The reasons for this epidemic may not be yet completely clear, but after the epidemic started, the people were not promptly told, it was a case of ‘without orders from the top, the lower levels suffer’.

Being clear about the real situation wouldn’t ruin social order, but actually, without an open recognition of reality, that will cause social chaos.

About comprehensive planning for moving forward with epidemic control and economic and social development

The Party governing New China is used to taking two mutually-exclusive concepts and combining them together in one proposition. For example, in the constitution, we have the phrase ‘People’s Democratic Dictatorship’. A ‘democracy’ and a ‘dictatorship’ are completely opposite systems, but they combine them into a special, impossible-to-reasonably-explain concept. 

When you have this “two-sided knife” policy, of course, it inevitably results in terrible dilemmas, but this is already a special characteristic of the ruling party’s culture. And because of that all those front-line health workers, the main force in saving lives, became the majority of the infected people and became those we needed to save. We lost so many lives, we lost so much outstanding medical talent.

Why did Zhejiang become the area with the second largest number of cases but no health workers were infected? The difference and reason for this comes down to the style of management. [In Wuhan] the lower level just obeyed the upper level, politics were put in first place, and there was no way for information to be open. In the other situation [Zhejiang], they had a more ‘market method’, where information was open and everyone was flexible, and people’s rights and interests were respected.

Singapore, Japan, South Korea, and our other neighboring countries all got the epidemic, but they all took appropriate measures for their own countries.

Those other countries won’t be looking for a great victory for their leaders, they’ll just get on seeking happy lives for their people. They certainly won’t be paying the people’s blood and lives as the price to obtain that victory, or for the people to take on the responsibility for the mistakes of the policymakers.

In the epidemic prevention work in Wuhan, mostly what you saw was not the Party and government out in front, but all different types of social groups and private businesses taking the initiative, there were so many examples of selfless dedication. People were contributing something of themselves to others’ lives. If there wasn’t all this social support and charitable activity, this government wouldn’t have made it through to today!

But in the eyes of the One, everything comes from the great commander and his personal deployment of resources. This type of difference in understanding, most importantly it reveals the difference in people’s integrity.

Strengthening the Leadership of the Party

This is the most important part of the speech, and he uses a phrase from the Tang Emperor Taizong; “The storm puts the strong grass to the test, the turbulence reveals the sincere official”. This phrase says it all, it goes right to the heart of the matter. The critical thing is not me, the key is whether each level of the Party can implement my imperial edict, raise the Party flag high in the wind. [The key] is to use the epidemic to reveal those officials who are loyal.

If you rush to the frontline, you can certainly be used by me, if you retreat to the back, you’ll be attacked by me and ‘not tolerated’. At the critical juncture, you need to go to the frontline, and [I] can use this critical time to observe and study the Party’s cadres, and assign important tasks [in the future] in this fashion.

The [official story] is that the responsibility for this epidemic crisis in the institutions of disease control, the shortcomings of the public health emergency management system, not in the dereliction of duty by the Party leadership. That way the Party leadership can shift the blame. So on the one hand, you can loudly shout about strengthening the Party leadership, loudly shout about the contribution of [Xi’s] ‘two personal contributions’, and at the same time as strengthening the Party’s leadership, you can push the blame onto the shortcomings of something below the Party’s leadership, and in that way, you can avoid society’s desire for the truth behind the lack of a prompt announcement about the virus outbreak. But this just exposes the root cause of the system’s problems. All the problems in the Party’s organization, they all basically go back to the lack of oversight by the people, a governing Party which does not accept the constraints of law, which is only loyal to imperial power and protecting the core of the system, this is the inevitable result of obeying the Party first, and putting our responsibilities to the people last.

One of the most successful parts of China’s reforms has been ‘Party-government separation, government-enterprise separation’. The rural contract responsibility scheme [rural land reform in the mid-1970s] had to first break with the leadership of the Party, the Party deciding everything. The rural contract responsibility system relied on people deciding for themselves, being responsible for themselves, and at the same time being responsible to other people. First give up [grain] to the state, then to the collective, and then the rest is yours. If we’d carried on with the Party leading, then how would we have contracted out the land? Here the basic moral is that if you want to be the leader, you have to take responsibility. Just like with this epidemic, it happened when “everything, everywhere obeys the Party leadership”, so the problem here is not some shortcomings [of the health system] but in the Party’s responsibility. And the contract responsibility system cut off the Party’s leadership and made clear who was responsible, and that was how we got successful reform.

When this country returns to a time when the Party leads everything, but when the Party refuses to take responsibility for the problems which appear, then we get the breakout of an epidemic that should never have happened.

From thoroughly rejecting the spirit of Deng’s speeches to redrafting the constitution, it all proves that this current governing Party is trying to re-establish a single-party dictatorship, a Party-Country system. This single-party dictatorship goes against the spirit of the constitution, it throws the people out, the Party replaces the People’s democracy. After this, we can see [the Party’s] Discipline and Inspection Commission leading the [government’s] Supervision and Inspection Commission, the Party’s Cyberspace Administration leading the state system, and [the Party] arbitrarily superseding any state legislation and rules. So this country’s problem is not the Party’s leadership, but that it’s just the Party’s country now, and that there are no more rights for the people!

This phrase you can tell all the Party members - you’re all in the same boat, but if you don’t try your hardest to save this Party-country boat, then I’ll throw you overboard, let you die with no burial! Don’t think about deserting, there’s no way out! The knife of ever-more accountability is already pressing on your throats!

China’s ruling party hid the reasons for the original outbreak of the virus, then relied upon state power to quarantine the cities, it cheated the World Health Organization to gain its trust, and it even won the praise of the international community. But having lived through this, the Chinese people are not so easily lied to again. Maybe people who live in countries with freedom of expression don’t know the pain of living in a country without a free media or freedom of expression, but the Chinese people have the pain of knowing that the virus outbreak and everything that came after should never have happened, that it’s all because of a system which strictly bans a free media and freedom of expression.

There’s no way for me to praise the February 23rd speech, on the contrary, one can see a bigger crisis in it, and this type of crisis will just ferment more quickly amongst all the flattery around that speech. While the shameless and the ignorant are happy enough to live with the stupidity of the Great Leader, then this society, stuck with this rabble, will find it difficult to develop and stay stable. Maybe in the not too distant future the ruling Party might wake up from this ignorance, have another “Bring down the Group of Four” movement, have another Deng Xiaoping-style reform, and rescue again this people and this country!

On the 24th the internal security system had a meeting to study the February 23rd speech, and the message was that ‘Politics in first place’. The whole country’s security system will now go into action on this ‘Politics in first place’ principle. Pick up the knife, shoot the gun, resolutely eliminate all forces which make vicious opportunistic attacks, protect social stability at all costs!

Are you willing to become that cost? Can that cost wake you from your dream?

China Twitter Tweets of the Week

Liz was responding to this tweet: