China sentences Xi critic to 18 years for graft


China sentenced a former property executive who once called President Xi Jinping "a clown" to 18 years in prison for graft, a court said on Tuesday.

Ren Zhiqiang, the former chairman of Huayuan, a state-owned real estate group, was convicted for illegal gains totalling 112 million yuan ($16.5 million), according to a notice on the website of Beijing No. 2 Intermediate Court.

Nicknamed “Cannon Ren” for his outspoken views posted on social media, Ren was detained in March after referring to Xi as "a clown" following a speech made by the leader in February about government efforts to battle the coronavirus.

Ren was later investigated for a "serious disciplinary violation", expelled from the ruling Communist Party and charged in a Beijing district court for economic crimes such as using official funds on golf expenses and using office and residential spaces provided for free by businessmen.

In Tuesday's judgment following a Septemer 11 trial, the court said Ren had paid back all monies unlawfully gained, "voluntarily confessed to all charges", accepted the sentence and will not appeal.

In addition to the prison sentence, Ren was fined 4.2 million yuan.

Zhang Ming, a retired political science professor at Renmin University, slammed the sentence as especially harsh.

"This just goes to show how anyone who dares speak against the regime will be hammered," Zhang told Reuters.

During Xi's tenure, China has clamped down on dissent and undertaken an aggressive campaign against corruption.

Earlier this month, Geng Xiaonan, a publisher who had been vocal in supporting dissenting voices such as Ren and former law professor Xu Zhangrun, was detained by Beijing police for an alleged illegal business operation, her lawyer Shang Baojun told Reuters on Tuesday.

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