Chinese social media star and property tycoon Ren Zhiqiang is incommunicado, believed detained, after an article critical of the government's response to the emergence of the coronavirus in Wuhan appeared online.
Overseas democracy activist Han Lianchao said via his Twitter account on Friday that Ren is currently being investigated by the Beijing municipal branch of the ruling Chinese Communist Party's Central Commission for Discipline Inspection Commission (CCDI).
Citing "friends in mainland China," Han said Ren was detained on Thursday, and is being held at a CCDI training facility in a suburb of Beijing.
Several other prominent figures mentioned the disappearance of Ren, whose outspoken comments on social media have earned him the nickname "Cannon."
Private entrepreneur Wang Ying posted to his friend circle in the social media app WeChat: "My friend Ren Zhiqiang is incommunicado! ... Where are you?"
The post garnered concerned replies from Beijing Film Academy professor Cui Weiping, journalism professor Hu Yong, Tianjin history professor Li Dongjun, and economist Wen Kejian.
Ren's detention comes after an article hitting out at the government response to the coronavirus epidemic circulated online. The article was attributed to one "Ren Zhiqiang," but RFA was unable to verify whether he wrote it.
Beijing historian and current affairs commentator Zhang Lifan said the article could have been written by Ren, but it remains unclear who the author is.
Disciplined over criticism of Xi
He said Ren has been targeted by the CCDI before, for criticizing President Xi Jinping's insistence that the media serve only the Communist Party's agenda.
"A few years ago, he criticized [Xi's call] for the media to bear the same surname as the party, and was disciplined for it," Zhang said.
"Everyone knows that had to do with party censorship of the media, but this time we can only guess," he said. "People are just guessing that there's a link with this article."
The article, titled "The lives of the people are ruined by the virus and a seriously sick system," doesn't mention President Xi, but it takes aim at decisions made under his direct command, nonetheless, including the decision to go ahead with a mass Lunar New Year banquet for thousands of people that resulted in a huge cluster of COVID-19 cases in the weeks that followed.
"The emperor is holding up a piece of cloth, trying to cover up the fact that he is wearing no clothes at all, although his ambition to be a strong leader is naked enough," the article quipped.
"No criticism of the mass assembly of 170,000 people has emerged, and the truth has never been uncovered, nor the cause of the outbreak discovered," the article said.
"The covert propaganda around the decisions made during the Wuhan coronavirus epidemic will only deceive those who are willing to be deceived," it said. "It won't mend those families broken by ... lost loved ones."
The article also took issue with the accusation by police that eight Wuhan medical staff were "rumor-mongering" when they tried to alert the authorities about the serious disease caused by a new virus.
Xinhua puffery reports awarded
Xi has ordered China's media to follow the party line, focus on "positive reporting", and "speak the party's will and protect the party's authority and unity."
Ren was berated by state media in 2016 for causing chaos and for failing to stand up for the party, and for "pursuing Western constitutionalism."
Meanwhile, authorities issued an award to Liao Jun, a reporter in the Hubei provincial bureau of state news agency Xinhua, for her reporting of the epidemic, prompting angry comments online.
Liao had authored articles claiming that there was no human-to-human transmission of the virus in the early days of the epidemic, and hitting out at medical staff for "rumor-mongering" when they tried to warn people about COVID-19.
A Hubei resident surnamed Mao told RFA that Liao is very senior at Xinhua.
"She was the one who wrote the story about the eight medics accused of rumor-mongering," Mao said. "She also wrote one quoting experts as saying that there was no person-to-person transmission."
"She has also written a whole string of positive news items about the coronavirus epidemic ... she was awarded the highest honor," he said.
Asked about the online criticism of Liao, he said: "I don't think there's a whole lot to say about her as an individual, because she had to do those things. Everything she does is determined by her job and her identity [in the Communist Party system]."
Reported by Fong Tak-ho and Lau Siu-fung for RFA's Cantonese Service, and by Qiao Long for the Mandarin Service. Translated and edited by Luisetta Mudie.