BEIJING—An influential former property executive who called Chinese leader Xi Jinping a “clown” over a speech he made last month about the government’s efforts to battle the coronavirus has gone missing, three of his friends told Reuters.
Ren Zhiqiang, a member of the Chinese Communist Party and a former top executive of state-controlled property developer Huayuan Real Estate Group, hasn’t been contactable since March 12, they said.
“Many of our friends are looking for him,” his close friend and businesswoman Wang Ying said in a statement to Reuters, describing them as being “extremely anxious.”
“Ren Zhiqiang is a public figure and his disappearance is widely know. The institutions responsible for this need to give a reasonable and legal explanation for this as soon as possible,” she said.
Calls made by Reuters to Ren’s mobile phone went unanswered.
The Beijing police didn’t immediately respond to requests by phone and fax for comment. China’s State Council Information Office didn’t immediately respond to a faxed request for comment.
An essay Ren shared with people he knew in recent weeks took aim at a speech Xi made on Feb. 23, which state media reported was teleconferenced to 170,000 party officials nationwide. Copies of his essay were later posted online by others.
In the essay, which doesn’t mention Xi by name, Ren said after studying the speech, he “saw not an emperor standing there exhibiting his ‘new clothes,’ but a clown stripped naked who insisted on continuing being emperor,” according to a version posted by China Digital Times, a U.S.-based website.
He also said it revealed a “crisis of governance” within the party, and that a lack of free press and speech had prevented the outbreak from being tackled sooner, causing the situation to worsen.
Ren’s disappearance comes as censorship over how local media and online users discuss the epidemic has tightened in recent weeks.
Ren, who gained the nickname “Cannon Ren” for previous critiques posted on social media, was put on probation from the party for a year in 2016 as part of a punishment for publicly criticizing government policy.
That year, the government ordered platforms such as the Twitter-like Weibo to shut down Ren’s social media accounts, which, at the time, had more than 30 million online followers, saying he had been “spreading illegal information.”