China: Quash Verdict Against Outspoken Tycoon

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Ren Zhiqiang, former Chairman of Huayuan Property Co. Ltd., attends an event in Chengdu city, Sichuan province, China on April 25, 2018. 
© 2018 Imaginechina via AP Images

(New York) – Chinese authorities should immediately quash the 18-year sentence against a property tycoon and outspoken critic of President Xi Jinping, Human Rights Watch said today.  

On September 22, 2020, a Beijing court announced on its website that Ren Zhiqiang had been convicted of taking bribes and embezzling public funds. He was also fined 4.2 million yuan (US$620,000).

“The corruption charges against Ren Zhiqiang are a thin cover for President Xi Jinping’s intolerance of dissent,” said Yaqiu Wang, China researcher. “The 18-year sentence handed down to a Communist Party member and member of the economic elite shows the grim environment for speech in China.”

Ren, 67, is the former chairman of Huayuan, a state-owned real estate group. He was born into a political family – his father was a deputy commerce minister. He rose to public prominence after garnering 38 million followers on the Chinese social media site Weibo. Known as “The Cannon,” Ren often used the platform to express views critical of authorities, and to urge the Communist Party to improve its governance of the country.

In March, the Beijing police detained Ren after he criticized the Chinese government’s handling of the coronavirus outbreak. In an online essay, Ren wrote that “People’s lives are harmed by both the virus and the serious ills of the system.” While he did not mention Xi by name, he suggested Xi was a “clown stripped naked who insisted on continuing being emperor.”

In July, the Beijing Commission for Discipline Inspection, the Chinese Communist Party’s abusive internal investigation agency, announced that Ren had been expelled from the Party and would be prosecuted on corruption charges. The commission did not make public where Ren was being held, and it is unclear what, if any, access he had to family members or lawyers of his choice.

The case highlights serious due process concerns and the absence of credible, publicly available information to substantiate the charges against Ren. The trial, held on September 9 at the Beijing No. 2 Intermediate Court, was secret. Neither the court nor Chinese state media released any information regarding the proceedings. Ren’s friends said that he was represented by a government-appointed lawyer, but it is unclear whether he had requested his own lawyer. The court said Ren had confessed to all charges and would not appeal.

The authorities’ treatment of Ren in detention is unknown, but as Human Rights Watch documented in a 2016 report, abuses against detainees in corruption cases are common. They include prolonged sleep deprivation, being forced into stress positions for extended periods, deprivation of water and food, and severe beatings. Detainees are also subject to solitary and incommunicado detention in unofficial detention facilities. After “confessing” to corruption, suspects are typically brought into the criminal justice system, convicted, and sentenced to often lengthy prison terms.

In February 2016, Ren was banished from social media in China after he criticized Xi for calling on the Chinese media to “serve the Party” in a speech. The authorities publicly censured Ren and put him on a one-year probation from the Party.

“Ren’s sham trial may put him in prison for the rest of his life,” Wang said. “A failure to immediately release Ren would show the world that China’s legal system is a tool for settling political scores, not delivering justice.”