A Loyal Chinese Critic Vanishes, in a Blow to the Nation’s Future

The sudden silence of Ren Zhiqiang, a vocal member of the Communist Party, signals a retreat from the principles that led China out of poverty.


By Li Yuan

Weeks before Ren Zhiqiang disappeared, leading to fears among his friends and fans that he had been picked up by the Chinese authorities, the 69-year-old former property mogul locked himself up.

It happened at an exhibition he held in December to show off his wood sculptures, a late-life passion after retirement and rising censorship left him little else to do. He barred himself inside a small work studio, so that attendees could view him only through a small window or from the open roof.

It was performance art, Mr. Ren explained to his friends, to show his isolation after the government barred him from social media and giving speeches. When friends asked how the government might react, he smirked the way he usually did when challenging authority.

Now, Mr. Ren may have gone further than the current leadership will allow.

His friends say he vanished this month after writing an essay critical of the Chinese government’s response to the coronavirus outbreak. The essay, which was shared widely within private internet message groups, never named Xi Jinping, China’s top leader. But it said the actions of a power-hungry “clown” and the Communist Party’s strict limits on free speech had exacerbated the epidemic. It declared that the party should “wake up from ignorance” and oust the leaders holding it back, just as it did with the leaders known as the “Gang of Four” in 1976, ending the turmoil of the Cultural Revolution.

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.

Like Mr. Xi, Mr. Ren was born into party royalty. His father was a deputy commerce minister. His mother went to school with the North Korean dictator Kim Il-sung, who held him in a photo when he was a baby, according to his social media posts and media interviews.

He was also well connected. He has been friends with Vice President Wang Qishan of China since he was in junior high. Mr. Ren wrote in his 2013 autobiography that Mr. Wang would sometimes call him late in the evening and chat for hours.

Mr. Ren hired Liu He, China’s main negotiator in the trade war with the United States, as a part-time researcher when Mr. Liu was a graduate student. Yu Zhengsheng, a former member of the party’s Politburo Standing Committee, its highest ruling body, worked with Mr. Ren when he was the construction minister and wrote the introduction of Mr. Ren’s first book in 2002.

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China says imported virus cases raise risk of new infection wave

BEIJING/SHANGHAI (Reuters) – The rising number of imported coronavirus cases in China have raised the possibility that the country will undergo a second wave of infections, a spokesman of the country’s health authority said on Sunday.

“China already has an accumulated total of 693 cases entering from overseas, which means the possibility of a new round of infections remains relatively big,” said Mi Feng of the National Health Commission.

China reported 45 new cases of coronavirus on Saturday, all but one of which were patients diagnosed after entering the country from overseas.

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Getting better: China's new coronavirus cases trend lower

SHANGHAI/BEIJING (Reuters) – China reported 45 new coronavirus cases in the mainland for Saturday, down from 54 on the previous day, with all but one involving travelers from overseas, the country’s health authority said on Sunday.

In the last seven days, China has reported 313 imported cases of coronavirus but only 6 confirmed cases of domestic transmission, data from the National Health Commission showed.

Most of those imported cases have involved Chinese returning home from abroad. Airlines have been ordered to sharply cut international flights from Sunday. And restrictions on foreigners entering the country went into effect on Saturday.

Five more people died on Saturday, all of them in Wuhan, the industrial central city where the epidemic began in December. But Wuhan, the capital of Hubei province, has reported only one new case on the last 10 days.

A total of 3,300 people have now died in mainland China, with a reported 81,439 infections.

Saturday marked the fourth consecutive day that Hubei province recorded no new confirmed cases.

With traffic restrictions in the province lifted, Wuhan is also gradually reopening borders and restarting some local transportation services.

All airports in Hubei resumed some domestic flights on Sunday, with the exception of Wuhan’s Tianhe airport, which will open to domestic flights on April 8. Flights from Hubei to Beijing remain suspended.

A train arrived in Wuhan on Saturday for the first time since the city was placed in lockdown two months ago. Greeting the train, Hubei Communist Party Secretary Ying Yong described Wuhan as “a city full of hope” and said its people heroism and hard work had “basically cut off transmission” of the virus.

Saturday’s sole case of domestically transmitted coronavirus was recorded in Henan province, bordering Hubei.

With the world’s second-biggest economy expected to shrink for the first time in four decades this quarter, China is set to unleash hundreds of billions of dollars in stimulus.

The ruling Communist Party’s Politburo called on Friday for a bigger budget deficit, the issuance of more local and national bonds, and steps to guide interest rates lower, delay loan repayments, reduce supply-chain bottlenecks and boost consumption.

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US warship sails through Taiwan Strait amid tensions with China

US says destroyer USS McCampbell conducted ‘routine Taiwan Strait transit’ in accordance with international law.

A United States warship passed through the Taiwan Strait on Wednesday, the US and Taiwan’s militaries said, following heightened tensions between China and Taiwan that has seen Taiwanese air force jets scramble to intercept Chinese fighters.

The ship sailed north through the waterway and was monitored by Taiwan’s armed forces, the island’s defence ministry said in a statement on Thursday.

It described the sailing as an “ordinary mission”, saying there was no cause for alarm, Reuters news agency reported.

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Anthony Junco, a spokesman for the US Seventh Fleet said the ship was the guided-missile destroyer USS McCampbell, which conducted “a routine Taiwan Strait transit March 25 (local time) in accordance with international law”.

“The ship’s transit through the Taiwan Strait demonstrates the US commitment to a free and open Indo-Pacific. The US Navy will continue to fly, sail and operate anywhere international law allows,” he said.

Taiwan is China’s most sensitive territorial and diplomatic issue and Beijing has never ruled out the use of force to bring the island under its control.

The narrow Taiwan Strait that separates the island from China is a frequent source of tension.

In recent weeks China’s air force has carried out several exercises close to Taiwan, causing Taiwan’s mostly US-equipped military to scramble fighters to intercept and warn away the Chinese aircraft.

Taiwan has called the Chinese drills provocative and has called on China to pay more attention to fighting the spread of the coronavirus rather than menacing Taiwan.

The US, like most countries, has no official relations with Taiwan, but is the island’s most important international supporter and main source of arms.

In January another US warship sailed through the Taiwan Strait less than a week after President Tsai Ing-wen won re-election by a landslide on a platform of standing up to China.

Tsai visited a military base on Tuesday and again warned of the threat from China during the virus outbreak.

“Everyone knows that although at present there is an intense epidemic situation, the Chinese Communist’s military aircraft continue to harass Taiwan; their threat to Taiwan and regional security has not gone down,” she said.

Amid the coronavirus pandemic, China has also stepped up its military activity in the region.

In recent days, it has been reported that Beijing launched two research stations on two disputed islands in the South China Sea, within the exclusive economic zone of the Philippines.

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China to end lockdown in most of Hubei as domestic coronavirus cases drop

Chinese authorities said Tuesday they will end a two-month lockdown of most of coronavirus-hit Hubei province at midnight, as domestic cases of the virus continue to subside.

People with a clean bill of health will be allowed to leave, the provincial government said. The city of Wuhan, where the outbreak started in late December, will remain locked down until April 8.

China barred people from leaving or entering Wuhan starting Jan. 23 in a surprise middle-of-the-night announcement and expanded it to most of the province in succeeding days. Train service and flights were cancelled and checkpoints set up on roads into the central province.

The drastic steps came as the coronavirus began spreading to the rest of China and overseas during the Lunar New Year holiday, when many Chinese travel.

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China sees continued rise in imported coronavirus cases

BEIJING (Reuters) – China on Sunday reported 46 new cases of coronavirus, the fourth straight day with an increase, with all but one of those cases imported from overseas, according to the country’s National Health Commission.

While China has drastically reduced the number of reported domestically transmitted cases – the one reported on Sunday was the first in four days – it is seeing a steady rise in imported cases, mostly from Chinese people returning from abroad.

On Saturday, China reported 41 new coronavirus cases for the previous day, all of them imported.

Among the new cases from abroad, a record 14 were in the financial hub of Shanghai and 13 were in the capital Beijing, a decline from 21 the previous day.

The latest figures bring China’s total reported coronavirus cases to 81,054, with 3,261 deaths, including six on Saturday.

The central province of Hubei, where the outbreak first emerged late last year in its capital city of Wuhan, reported its fourth straight day of no new cases.

The new locally-transmitted case was in the southern metropolis of Guangzhou and was also the first known case where the infection of a local person was linked to the arrival of someone from overseas, according to Guangdong province.

Globally, roughly 275,000 people have been infected with the virus, and more than 11,000 have died, according to a Reuters tally, with the number of deaths in Italy recently surpassing those in China.

China has used draconian measures to contain the spread of the virus, including locking down Hubei province and more recently stepping up measures to screen and quarantine overseas arrivals.

The country is trying to restart an economy that is widely expected to contract deeply in the current quarter, with life slowly returning to normal in cities such as Beijing and Shanghai, albeit with everyone wearing masks in public.

Still, numerous shops and restaurants remain shut – many have gone out of business – and factories and other workplaces are still not operating at full capacity.

“Now I think the epidemic has been controlled. But this definitely doesn’t mean that it’s over,” said a 25-year-old woman surnamed He who works in the internet sector and was visiting the vast Summer Palace complex in Beijing on Saturday.

“I’m willing to come out today but of course I am still afraid,” she told Reuters.

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China reports record new coronavirus cases from abroad

BEIJING/SHANGHAI (Reuters) – China’s coronavirus infections from abroad hit a new daily record while infected travelers reached an unprecedented number of Chinese provinces, pressuring authorities to hold the bar high on already tough custom rules and public-health protocols.

China has intensified measures to guard against infections arriving from abroad as the coronavirus spread around the world, concerned that travelers might trigger a second wave of domestic infections just as the outbreak was controlled at home.

Mainland China had 39 new confirmed cases on Thursday, the country’s National Health Commission said, all of which were imported cases. There were no locally transmitted cases for the second day.

Of the new imported infections, 14 were in Guangdong, eight in Shanghai and six in Beijing, the health authority said in a statement on Friday.

Big transport hubs like the Chinese capital, Shanghai, Guangdong, including Shenzhen, have been the main points of entry for cases involving infected travelers.

But on Thursday, imported cases were also reported in Tianjin, Liaoning, Heilongjiang, Shandong and Gansu in the north, as well as in Zhejiang, Fujian, Guangxi, Sichuan.

That brings the total number of imported infections in China to 228 as of Thursday.

The imported travelers, many of whom are Chinese nationals returning from overseas, have yet to pass their illness on to local communities so far, thanks to 14-day quarantine periods and isolation either at home or at designated venues.

But authorities are acutely aware of the dangers.

China must not allow the improving trend in the containment of the virus to reverse, President Xi Jinping warned on Wednesday, as the pandemic sickened more than 200,000 people around the globe.

Wuhan, capital of central Hubei province and epicenter of the outbreak in China, saw zero new cases for the second day, the National Health Commission said.

That brings the total accumulated number of confirmed cases in mainland China so far to 80,967.

The death toll from the outbreak had reached 3,248 as of the end of Thursday, up by three from the previous day.

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China reports no new local coronavirus transmissions for first time

BEIJING/SHANGHAI (Reuters) – China and the epicenter of its coronavirus outbreak, Wuhan city, have reported no new domestic transmissions for the first time, raising hopes that strict containment efforts to stop the spread of the virus are working.

Wuhan, locked down since Jan. 23, is currently the only city in Hubei province still designated “high-risk” and subject to strict travel bans, even as restrictions across the rest of the country have loosened in recent weeks.

The city relaxed quarantine rules slightly on Thursday, allowing people to walk in their compounds rather than staying confined to living quarters, state-run CCTV reported.

If no new case is reported for 14 consecutive days, the lockdown could gradually be lifted, the China Daily newspaper said, citing an epidemiologist.

“We expect new cases will cease to appear in mid or late March,” Li Lanjuan, director of China’s State Key Laboratory for Diagnosis and Treatment of Infectious Diseases, told the newspaper.

The number of daily new infections in mainland China fell below 100 for the first time on March 6. On Thursday, there were 34 cases, up from 13 a day earlier. All of Thursday’s cases involved travelers from abroad.

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Total infections in mainland China stood at 80,928, with the death toll at 3,245 by Wednesday, up eight from a day before. Wuhan accounted for six of the eight new deaths in Hubei.

No new infections have been reported for 14 days in the rest of Hubei, where authorities said on Thursday they would allow entry on certain conditions to people from other provinces.

FOCUS ON IMPORTED CASES

China’s recent efforts to fight the epidemic have increasingly focused on inbound travelers, amid concern about a second wave of infections from overseas.

New imported coronavirus infections hit a record of 21 in Beijing, data showed on Thursday, piling pressure on authorities to screen out infected passengers and isolate suspected cases.

“A single spark can start a prairie fire,” state-backed China Daily wrote in an editorial.

On Wednesday, Beijing recorded 21 new infections from abroad, mostly in travelers from Britain and Spain.

Since last week, Beijing airport has set aside a special zone for international flights, with health checks required for all disembarking passengers. Non-transit travelers are sent to designated sites for a compulsory 14-day quarantine.

Beijing has halted self-quarantine for overseas arrivals, which had previously been allowed, according to state media.

China’s aviation regulator said on Thursday it would divert some international flights bound for Beijing to other cities. The Global Times said China’s aviation authority had appointed a team of 12 airport firms to help.

Such reports suggest the capital may have reached its limit in screening incoming visitors, a China Daily editorial said.

The southern province of Guangdong reported nine new imported cases, while the financial hub of Shanghai saw two new infections from overseas.

Shanghai on Thursday expanded the list of countries from which travelers have to undergo a 14-day quarantine to 24 countries, eight more than previously.

From Thursday, those entering Guangdong after visiting countries with high infection rates will be quarantined for 14 days at home or at a centralized medical center, the official Xinhua news agency said. The far western region of Xinjiang adopted similar measures, Xinhua said.

China’s eastern provinces of Shandong and Anhui, its southwestern city of Chongqing and Wuhan earlier said they would require all overseas arrivals to spend 14 days in quarantine.

China tentatively plans to hold late in April or early in May its annual gathering of parliament, two people involved in preparations told Reuters, after a delay, caused by the outbreak, from an initial date of early March.

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