A court in Beijing has sentenced former property tycoon Ren Zhiqiang to 18 years' imprisonment, in a move analysts said was intended to send a strong message that ruling Chinese Communist Party leader Xi Jinping will brook no challenges to his authority, even among his own "princeling" political faction.
The Beijing No. 2 Intermediate People's Court sentenced Ren to 18 years' imprisonment after finding him guilty of "corruption, bribery, embezzlement of public funds and abuse of power" as a high-ranking leader of a state-owned enterprise, the court said in a statement on Sept. 22.
Ren was found to have "taken advantage of his position to embezzle more than 110 million yuan in public funds, received more than 1.25 million yuan in bribes, abused his power and caused particularly heavy losses of more than 100 million yuan to a state-owned holding company," the court said in a statement.
Ren accepted the decision and decided not to appeal, the Global TImes newspaper, which has close links to ruling party newspaper the People's Daily, said in a report.
He was expelled by the party's Central Commission for Discipline Inspection (CCDI) in July after being probed by the agency in the wake of an online essay he wrote criticizing Xi Jinping's handling of the coronavirus pandemic, and likening the Chinese leader to a "clown."
"Ren was found to have failed to keep in line with the party Central Committee on major issues of principle and published articles in violation of the four cardinal principles, defaming the Party and the country, as well as distorting party and military history," the CCDI said at the time.
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. "The Communist Party cracks down harder on [dissidents] within its ranks than outsiders."
'Warning to the rest of China'
Hebei-based Communist Party historian Fang Ning said he was shocked at the length of the sentence.
"Everyone knows why Ren Zhiqiang got that sentence," Fang told RFA. "It's a warning to the rest of China not to say anything that strays from the party line."
He said heavy sentences have typically been handed down to high-ranking party members believed to be a threat to the leadership of the time, including late former premier Zhao Ziyang.
"If you look back at the history of the Chinese Communist Party, then this isn't particularly surprising," Fang said.
Beijing-based independent scholar Liu Jing agreed. "It's basically letting everyone know that they need to keep their mouths shut," he told RFA. "In Beijing, we call it killing the chickens to frighten the monkeys."
"Anyone who says something [the party leaders] don't want to hear will be punished," he said.
Outspoken Beijing journalist Gao Yu said Ren's apparent acceptance of the charges against him contradicted his earlier stance in refusing a state-appointed lawyer and choosing to defend himself in court.
"I'm pretty sure that Ren's decision not to appeal has a lot to do with his son," she said, referring to the arrest of Ren's son, about whom officials have remained silent.
Companies put on notice
Wu Qiang, a former politics lecturer at Beijing's Tsinghua University, said the warning message in Ren's hefty jail term extends in particular to other leaders of large companies in China not to forget that they need the ruling party's protection and approval.
"He may be a second-generation member of a revolutionary family ... but Ren can't be allowed off the hook," Wu said. "[Xi] is building his image as an absolute leader."
Chinese political commentator Willy Lam said Ren's sentence is closely linked to the fact that he criticized Xi in public.
"Xi Jinping seems to have increased punishment for those who criticize him during the past year or two," Lam told RFA. "This heavy sentence isn't just a matter of a couple of online articles."
"It's about the fact that Xi regarded him as a threat, and part of a behind-the-scenes coup attempt aimed at Xi," he said.
Lam said official media had played down the news of Ren's heavy jail term, possibly so as to avoid stirring up public sympathy for Ren.
"Xi Jinping is hoping that this harsh sentence handed down to Ren Zhiqiang will stop other members of the princeling factions from attacking him," he said.
Reported by Gao Feng and Qiao Long for RFA's Mandarin Service, and by Ng Yik-tung and Sing Man for the Cantonese Service. Translated and edited by Luisetta Mudie.
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