(p. A19) The disappearance of Mr. Ren, a longtime critic of the Chinese government, adds to fears that China is sliding backward and abandoning the reforms that saved it from extreme poverty and international isolation. Mr. Ren was no radical — he was a decades-long loyal Communist Party member, the former leader of a state-run company and a friend to some of China’s most powerful politicians. He emerged in what now seems a distant time, from the 1980s to the period before Mr. Xi became top leader, when the party brooked no challenge to its rule but allowed some individuals to question some of its choices.
Mr. Ren’s fate remains unclear. But if he was punished for his writing, it suggests China’s leadership won’t tolerate criticism no matter how justified it might be.
. . .
He was influenced by free-market economists like Milton Friedman and Friedrich Hayek. He believed government control needed to be checked.
“State power in any country is greedy, so it needs to be subject to public supervision,” he wrote in his autobiography. “Otherwise, the power will be abused and everybody will suffer from it.”
. . .
In 2011, near the peak of China’s openness to new ideas, Mr. Ren, an avid reader, started a book club. It drew China’s top entrepreneurs, intellectuals and government officials. Books included Alexis de Tocqueville’s “Democracy in America” and Hannah Arendt’s “The Origins of Totalitarianism.” The events became so popular that people had to apply through a lottery system to join. Some people flew to Beijing from all over the country to attend.
Mr. Ren said his goal was to help China’s young generation develop independent thinking so it would not follow the orders of authority slavishly. The government said no to some topics and speakers, but left it largely alone.
By early 2016, he had nearly 38 million followers on Weibo. But party attitudes toward expression were changing.
That same year, Mr. Xi declared that all Chinese news media had to serve the party. No Chinese leader since Mao Zedong had made that obligation so explicit. Mr. Ren shot back on Weibo, writing that the news media should serve the people, not the party, or the people would suffer.
Retribution was swift. His Weibo account was deleted. His party membership was suspended for a year. His passport was taken away. Members of his family weren’t allowed to leave the country. He faced constant investigations and interrogations.
. . .
Then came the coronavirus outbreak. When doctors working with the disease tried to publicly warn China about the outbreak, they were threatened by government officials. For Mr. Ren, friends said, this confirmed his argument that a media that serves the party couldn’t serve the people.
“Without a media representing the interests of the people by publishing the actual facts,” he wrote in the essay that circulated this year, “people’s lives are being ravaged by both the virus and the major illness of the system.”
He shared the essay with a few friends. Three days after his 69th birthday, he disappeared. His assistant and his son have disappeared, too.
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(Note: the online version of the commentary was updated April 2, 2020, and has the title “THE NEW NEW WORLD; A Loyal Chinese Critic Vanishes, in a Blow to the Nation’s Future.”)