A Chinese court on Tuesday sentenced an outspoken Chinese property tycoon who had denounced the Communist Party leader, Xi Jinping, to 18 years in prison for corruption, a harsh punishment that appeared aimed at deterring dissent.
The court in Beijing said that the tycoon, Ren Zhiqiang, had used his former posts to take bribes and embezzle public funds, and accused him of illegally enriching himself by about $2.9 million. But Mr. Ren’s supporters are sure to see the long sentence as punishment for his cutting comments about Mr. Xi — and as a warning to other potential critics of Mr. Xi’s rule.
“Cracking down on Ren Zhiqiang, using economic crimes to punish him, is a warning to others — killing one to warn a hundred,” Cai Xia, a friend of Mr. Ren’s who formerly taught at the Central Party School, which trains rising officials, said in a telephone interview before the court’s judgment.
“It’s a warning to the whole party and especially to red offspring,” Ms. Cai said, referring to the children of party officials.
While many others have also criticized the Chinese government, Mr. Ren, 69, stood out for his ties to the party establishment and for his willingness as a prominent businessman to bluntly criticize the party. He comes from a family steeped in Communist Party tradition and was once close to senior party leaders, including Wang Qishan, who is now vice president.
The sentence handed down by the Second Intermediate People’s Court of Beijing appeared long for someone of Mr. Ren’s age and elite connections. The court said that he had “fully admitted to the facts of all the crimes and willingly accepted the court’s judgment.”
The court also said in a statement that Mr. Ren had accepted the judgment and would not appeal. But his case was cloaked in secrecy, and the court’s decision was swift even by the standards of politically sensitive cases that come before China’s party-controlled courts.
The court statement did not say when Mr. Ren’s trial took place, but his supporters said the court had posted an announcement that his trial was to be held on Sept. 11, eleven days ago.
Mr. Ren has joined a handful of wealthy and educated Chinese who have recently taken on the expanding power of the party and have suffered afterward.
This month, the police in Beijing detained Geng Xiaonan, a businesswoman who runs a publishing company. Ms. Geng had supported Xu Zhangrun, a professor of law at the prestigious Tsinghua University, who had condemned Mr. Xi’s hard-line policies in a succession of essays. Mr. Xu was detained by the police for about a week in July, and Ms. Geng had leapt to his defense after investigators said he had used prostitutes, an accusation he vehemently denied.
The police have said that Ms. Geng and her husband were suspected of illegal business activities. Their supporters say Ms. Geng was targeted for helping Mr. Xu and other dissenters who have run foul of the party.
Ms. Cai, the former party school professor, was expelled from the Communist Party last month after she scathingly denounced Mr. Xi’s policies in speeches and essays. She now lives in the United States.
“This is political persecution, plain and simple,” Ms. Cai said, referring to Mr. Ren’s case. “I believe that this prosecution was not because of any economic crimes, but because of his political opinions.”
Mr. Ren was detained in March after he criticized Mr. Xi’s handling of the coronavirus outbreak that spread across China and the rest of the world from late last year. Months later, the Communist Party announced that Mr. Ren had been expelled and that he had been placed under criminal investigation.
The businessman had posted an essay that blasted the Chinese government’s initial mishandling of the outbreak, which emerged in Wuhan, a city in central China where officials held back information about infections.
Mr. Ren said the party’s harsh controls on free speech had exacerbated the crisis by deterring whistle-blowers. He also referred obliquely to Mr. Xi as a “clown.”
After citing a speech in which Mr. Xi defended the party’s handling of the coronavirus crisis, Mr. Ren wrote, “Standing there was not an emperor showing off his ‘new clothes,’ but a clown stripped of his clothes who still insisted on being emperor.”
In 2016, the Communist Party had already warned Mr. Ren and put him on probation after he publicly scoffed at Mr. Xi’s comments that Chinese news outlets must serve the party. “When did the people’s government turn into the party’s government?” Mr. Ren wrote.
The party expelled Mr. Ren in July and accused him of disloyalty.
“Ren Zhiqiang lost his ideals and convictions,” the Beijing party authorities said. “On major matters of principle, he failed to stay in line with the party’s central authorities.”