Fifty years after the tumultuous upheaval known as the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution, China appears on the verge a new information age battle between communist party hardliners and reformers.
Unlike Mao Zedong’s rampaging zealots of that era, China’s new Red Guards are lurking in cyberspace, promoting a hardline communist agenda against party reformers who appear to favor less rigid media and other controls and who seem to be questioning the supremacy of the all-powerful Communist Party of China.
A potentially major split within the Chinese leadership surfaced amid the ongoing political drama over popular real estate mogul Ren Zhiqiang, a privileged Communist Party member and outspoken social media critic widely dubbed the Donald Trump of China.
China’s ‘Donald’ silenced
Ren, also known as “The Cannon” for his social media postings online, boasted of more than 37 million online followers until his microblogging accounts were shut down by authorities Feb. 25.
Ren set off a firestorm of controversy last month by criticizing Chinese supreme leader Xi Jinping for issuing a Feb. 19 fiat demanding all state-controlled media must uphold “absolute loyalty” the party.
“When all media pledged loyalty to the party… the people will be abandoned and forgotten,” Ren blogged shortly after Xi’s high-profile visit to state media offices.
Ren also noted the “complete split of two opposing camps” – the Chinese people and the ruling communist party. Such remarks are regarded as one of the most serious political heresies someone can issue in China where the party since taking power in 1949 relentlessly drummed the propaganda theme that in communist China the people and party are inseparable.
Comparing China to a business, Ren then stated: “The board of directors (the ruling party) was delegated by the shareholders to manage and run the company (the country), but the company belongs to the shareholders, not the board.” The viral posting saw 6,800 forwards and over 9,300 likes before censors removed it.
Ren’s Sina Weibo social media account was shut down six days later, and the official propaganda wheels began spinning as media outlets launched what appeared to be concerted campaign of verbal attacks on Ren, who in the past had been praised an “outstanding party member.”
The silencing of “Big Cannon Ren” marked the first action against him since he began issuing blunt postings since at least 1998.
In 1998, Ren criticized government-proposed affordable housing policies in favor of more private sector efforts. The remarks were made in front of Politburo Standing Committee member Yu Zhengshen, at the time the house minister and currently a Politburo Standing Committee member. China watchers say Ren’s longevity on the Internet may also helped by Yu.
In 2010, Ren blogged against the government’s effort to place controls on over-priced properties as forcing movement toward market economy to a greater Beijing-planned system.
And in 2011, Ren advocated getting rid of China’s state-owned enterprise while head of the state-owned Huayuan in favor a “genuine market economy.”
His detractors included critics in the Communist Party Youth League Central Committee who denounced Ren as “anti-party” who was promoting western ideology through his blog posts.
Ren criticized the Party youth league and wrote that he had been deceived for more than a decade by the league’s slogan “we are the successors of communism.”
“We must not let the CYL Central Committee deceive our younger generation with foolishness, we must not let the reform and opening up backpedal to the period before,” Ren wrote
Jiang Jun, spokesman for the Cyberspace Administration, announced that Ren would no longer be allowed to voice politically incorrect views. The spokesman chastised Ren, asserting the mogul should be a role model for following the rules and use his online clout to “shoulder social responsibility” and “proactively spread positive messages.”
Other state-run outlets echoed similar criticism of Ren.
Ren’s circle targeted
But analysts say the most significant – and revealing – critique appeared on the Beijing city Communist Party Propaganda Department website.
VOA News disclosed Feb. 22, that the propaganda department’s website Qianlong raised questions about who within party leadership had allowed Ren to issue online “anti-Party” criticism.
The commentary questioning authorities was a not so subtle critique of one of Xi closest advisers – anti-corruption czar Wang Qishan, who also happens to be a long-time friend of Ren.
Ren is no ordinary blogger. He is chairman of several real estate corporations and the retired chairman of the state-owned property group Huayuan. His father, Ren Quansheng, held senior government positions, including vice minister of commerce.
But Ren’s most significant connection is Wang, the incumbent Chinese vice premier and head of the party’s Central Commission for Discipline Inspection, which is carrying out Xi large-scale anti-corruption campaign that many say appears more like a campaign to neutralize political rivals.
During the Cultural Revolution, Ren and Wang worked in the Chinese countryside and the two are said to be close associates. Ren revealed in a recent publication that he often speaks to Wang on the phone.
Ren seemed headed for trouble after the Communist Party in the Beijing Xicheng district – the district Ren represented at the People’s Political Consultative Conference threatened to strip Ren of his Party membership.
The district party committee put out a circular Feb. 29 stating that Ren will be “dealt with in a solemn manner” for repeatedly posting “illegal information” and “mistaken opinions” that seriously damage the party’s image.
A meeting of the committee to deal with Ren was called but never held, however.
On China’s vibrant Internet, thousands of online users voiced opposition to what some dubbed the party’s new call to “sweep away all monsters” – the phrase used in 1966 for expanding the Cultural Revolution nationwide.
The Cultural Revolution was Mao’s program to save communist ideology by purging capitalist elements. Bands of Red Guards were given power to kill and abuse “enemies.” As many as 1.5 million were killed during the 10-year revolution.
The powers behind the Qianlong faction are not known. But they could be part of the neo-Maoist faction once led by disgraced regional Party leader Bo Xilai. Bo was brought down in a corruption scandal involving the death of a British businessman. He was fond of hosting large-scale rallies praising Chinese communism.
Days after the official criticism campaign kicked off, a website associated with the Wang’s discipline inspection commission posted a not-so-veiled statement indirectly supporting Ren.
The commission website post invoked Xi as once suggesting that it was better for a single man to challenge conventional wisdom by speaking out than for a thousand people to nod their heads in unquestioning agreement.
The conflicting party postings on Ren appear to have set the table for a future showdown between neo-Maoist hardliners who favor a return to the Cultural Revolution-era communist policies, and more pragmatic communists who favor a loosening of the system more in line with the information age freedoms currently sweeping the globe through the Internet and advanced telecommunications devices.
Whether Ren is ousted from the 90 million-member party, or is allowed to return to the blogosphere are open questions likely to be resolved in the coming weeks. More than likely he will remain in his current limbo until the political forces behind the scenes rise or fall.
The incident highlights a larger internal struggle that appears to be in its early stages. Further skirmishes in a larger political power likely will accelerate as the party prepares for its major 19th Party Congress next year.
Of the seven members of the Politburo Standing Committee, all but Xi and Prime Minister Li Keqiang are scheduled to be replaced.
Bill Gertz is a journalist and author who has spent decades covering defense and national security affairs. He is the author of six national security books