Ren Zhiqiang: China's conscience and hope to save the Chinese people

Ren Zhiqiang: China's conscience and hope to save the Chinese people
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Nearly a month after the sudden disappearance of Ren Zhiqiang, a retired businessman in China, Chinese authorities recently announced his official detention and investigation. Although few Americans may have heard of Ren, this news has stirred Beijing’s politics and could have a profound impact on China’s political future and global stability.  

This is because Ren is an influential and longtime critic of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) and its leaders. Born to a CCP family, he has a close relationship with many of China’s leaders, including Wang Qishan, China’s vice president, and Yu Zhengsheng, former chairman of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference. 

Ren was a member of the CCP and had a successful career as a real estate developer. More importantly, he became a leading thinker who reflected about China’s politics and how to best serve the interests of the Chinese people. His reasoned thoughts earned him tens of millions of followers.

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During the COVID-19 outbreak, Ren accused Chinese President Xi Jinping of disregarding human life and recklessly mismanaging the public health crisis that led to the loss of thousands of lives in China and untold damage worldwide. Xi and the CCP have shamelessly portrayed China’s leader as a hero who saved the country and guided the world in fighting the pandemic. In a long essay published in February, Ren denounced Xi, saying he perceives Xi as “not an emperor standing there exhibiting his ‘new clothes,’ but a clown stripped naked who insisted on continuing being emperor.” 

The essay is a damning indictment of Xi’s performance during this global crisis. Ren not only mocked Xi mercilessly, he also detailed Xi’s missteps in “personally directing” the Chinese government’s efforts to contain the coronavirus in Wuhan, refuting Xi and the CCP propaganda apparatus’s lavish praise of him. Specifically, Ren criticized Xi’s concealment of the truth about the outbreak, failure to make public critical information in a timely manner, evasion of responsibility, lying to cover up his mismanagement, and crackdown on whistleblowers. 

Ren argued that defects in the CCP system allowed the coronavirus outbreak to happen. If the party’s governance continues unaltered, he said, another disaster inevitably will happen. 

One major defect of CCP rule, according to Ren, is that the party does not permit a free press or free speech in China. Even before he published his essay, Ren in 2016 criticized Xi’s demand that “media’s family name is the Party,” which meant that all news media in China “must work to speak for the Party’s will and its propositions and protect the Party’s authority and unity.” 

Chinese authorities attacked Ren for those criticisms, barred him from speaking and suspended his CCP membership. However, Ren rightfully insists that a free press and free speech are a sine qua non for a stable society. And in his recent essay, he submits that “the truth does not cause societal instability, but without it there will be social chaos.”  

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Ren concludes that China’s success over the last generation lies in greater separation of the party from government, a reform that began under Deng Xiaoping. This separation allowed China to liberalize its economy. Alarmingly, however, Ren notes that Xi is returning to a more draconian mantra of “the party leads everything,” which will be disastrous for China. Xi’s approach ultimately will hinder economic development and cause serious problems. 

Ren accused Xi of abandoning Deng’s approach to governance in favor of returning China to Mao Zedong’s party-state system that crushed people’s rights and interests. Ren boldly urged the party to wake up to this danger and, in order to resurrect a Deng-style of government, to launch a campaign similar to Deng’s smashing of the “Gang of Four” who ruled China after Mao’s death. 

This is significant for U.S. officials because Ren Zhiqiang represents a growing consensus of anti-Xi Jinping sentiment among China’s elites — within and outside of the party system — and even perhaps among the larger population. But, despite his influence and mass support, Ren is destined for trial in what will be a kangaroo court and almost certainly will receive severe punishment for criticizing Xi.  

Ren’s essay is a pivotal, fateful statement. Among communist systems, it is perhaps equivalent to Lenin’s Testament, in which the Soviet leader warned his party colleagues about Joseph Stalin, or Nikita Khrushchev’s 1956 “secret speech” denouncing Stalin while seeking to return to greater freedoms. If Ren’s call to action fails, it could mean the true end of the Deng Xiaoping era and any possibility that China might return to it. 

Ren’s insights into Xi’s rule compel the recognition that China under Xi never will return to Deng’s reform policy, as Vice President Pence suggested in his 2018 Hudson Institute speech.  The consequences for the United States are significant: The U.S. must consider its options to deal with a more aggressive, repressive China.

We hope that Ren’s arrest serves as a wake-up call for many Chinese who have maintained hope that China can become a democratic, open society and never again return to the tyrannical practices of Mao. A split among China’s elite is likely, and some could become radicalized by Ren’s trial and seek a way to end Xi’s rule. Ren’s arrest clearly indicates that the CCP will strictly crack down on any criticism or dissent, even from someone close to party leaders.

One encouraging sign is that the CCP has developed deep cracks, and some may be reflecting on the consequences of dictatorship. True political reform that leads to democracy and the rule of law is the only way out for China. Ren Zhiqiang may be the last hope for creating a reformed China. If the nation falls into a Maoist abyss, it likely would take international peace and stability with it.

Bradley A. Thayer is professor of political science at the University of Texas-San Antonio and the co-author of “How China Sees the World: Han-Centrism and the Balance of Power in International Politics.” 

Lianchao Han is vice president of Citizen Power Initiatives for China. After the Tiananmen Square Massacre in 1989, he was one of the founders of the Independent Federation of Chinese Students and Scholars. He worked in the U.S. Senate for 12 years, as legislative counsel and policy director for three senators.