BEIJING — The former chairman of a state-owned real estate company who publicly criticized President Xi Jinping's handling of the coronavirus pandemic has been expelled from the ruling Communist Party and will be prosecuted on corruption charges, the party announced Friday.
Ren Zhiqiang, who had become known for speaking up about censorship and other sensitive topics, disappeared from public view in March after publishing an essay online that accused Xi of mishandling the outbreak that began in December in the central city of Wuhan.
Ren, 69, is accused of corruption, embezzlement, taking bribes and abusing his position at a state-owned company, the Discipline Inspection Commission of Xicheng District in Beijing said on its website.
The former chairman and deputy party secretary of Huayuan Group was expelled from the ruling party and his case was turned over to prosecutors, the agency said. It gave no details of the offenses.
Xi, who became ruling party leader in 2012, has suppressed criticism, tightened censorship and cracked down on unofficial organizations. Dozens of journalists, labor and human rights activists and others have been imprisoned.
In a commentary that circulated on social media, Ren criticized a Feb. 23 video conference with 170,000 officials held early in the pandemic at which Xi announced orders for responding to the disease.
Ren didn't mention Xi's name but said, "standing there was not an emperor showing off his new clothes but a clown who had stripped off his clothes and insisted on being an emperor."
Ren criticized propaganda that portrayed Xi and other leaders as rescuing China from the disease without mentioning where it began and possible mistakes including suppressing information at the start of the outbreak.
"People did not see any criticism at the conference. It didn't investigate and disclose the truth," Ren wrote, according to a copy published by China Digital Times, a website in California. "No one reviewed or took responsibility. But they are trying to cover up the truth with all kinds of great achievements."
Ren had an early military career and his parents were both former high officials in the Communist party, leading some to call him a princeling, an oft-used reference to the offspring of the founders of the People's Republic — including Xi.
That status might have provided him with some immunity from prosecution, although he appears to have crossed a line by criticizing Xi's personal leadership, whether by name or implication.
Ren ran into trouble a few years ago, when state media reported he had been accused of violating party "political discipline." His party membership was put on probation for one year. He had an early spell of trouble in the mid-1980s.