ren zhiqiang money
Beijing CNN  — 

A Chinese billionaire who criticized President Xi Jinping’s handling of the coronavirus epidemic has been placed under investigation, Beijing authorities said in a brief statement Tuesday.

Ren Zhiqiang, a retired real-estate tycoon with close ties to senior Chinese officials, faces allegations of committing “serious violations” of the law and Communist Party regulations, a favored euphemism for corruption.

The statement did not give any other details about the allegations against Ren.

Born into the party’s ruling elite, the 69-year-old has often been outspoken on Chinese politics, far more than is usually allowed in the authoritarian state.

His forthrightness earned him the nickname “The Cannon” on Chinese social media.

Ren, a longtime Communist Party member and former chairman of a state-owned property company, went missing in mid-March, according to friends. Wang Ying, an entrepreneur and close friend of Ren, told CNN last month that she had not been able to reach him since March 12, and feared he had been taken away by authorities.

Tuesday’s announcement was the first official acknowledgment that Ren was being held by the authorities.

Ren Zhiqiang, a former real estate tycoon and outspoken government critic, has been placed under investigation by the Communist Party.

The tycoon’s disappearance came after he allegedly penned a scathing essay in early March criticizing Xi’s response to the coronavirus epidemic. In the article, he lashed out at the party’s crackdown on press freedom and intolerance of dissent.

While Ren did not mention Xi by name, he obliquely referred to the top leader as a power-hungry “clown.”

“I saw not an emperor standing there exhibiting his ‘new clothes,’ but a clown who stripped off his clothes and insisted on continuing being an emperor,” Ren wrote of Xi’s address to 170,000 officials across the country at a mass video conference on epidemic control measures on February 23.

The billionaire went on to accuse the Communist Party of putting its own interests above the safety of the Chinese people, to secure its rule. “Without a media representing the interests of the people by publishing the actual facts, the people’s lives are being ravaged by both the virus and the major illness of the system,” he said.

This is not the first time Ren has got into trouble with the party’s discipline watchdog for speaking his mind.

In 2016, he was disciplined after questioning on social media Xi’s demands that Chinese state media must stay absolutely loyal to the party. He was put on a year’s probation for his party membership and his wildly popular account on Weibo, China’s Twitter like platform, was shuttered.