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BREAKING NEWS: Critic Who Called President "A Clown" Gets 18 Years In Prison

A Chinese property mogul and arch critic of President Xi Jinping jailed for corruption after calling the president a clown.

Ren Zhiqiang, the former chairman of state-owned real estate group Huayuan, received a sentence of 18 years for corruption, bribery and embezzlement of public funds.

He was also handed a 4.2million yuan (£484,485) fine, according to Beijing No. 2 Intermediate Court.

The court verdict, released earlier today, said the 69-year-old 'voluntarily and truthfully confessed all his crimes' and would not appeal the court's decision.

Rights campaigners accuse President Xi Jinping and the Communist Party of using corruption charges to silence dissent.

Ren, who was once among the ruling Communist Party's inner circle, disappeared from the public eye in March shortly after penning an essay that lambasted Xi's response to the coronavirus pandemic.

The piece has since been scrubbed from China's internet, which regularly censors content that challenges the authorities, but was shared widely elsewhere online.

'This epidemic has revealed the fact that the Party and government officials only care about protecting their own interests, and the monarch only cares about protecting their interests and core position,' Ren wrote, without naming Xi.

He added: 'Standing there was not an emperor showing off his new clothes, but a clown stripped of clothes who insisted on being an emperor.'

Ren's influential blog on the Twitter-like Weibo platform attracted millions of followers before his account was closed by authorities in 2016 after he repeatedly called for greater freedom of the press.

Beijing has stepped up its crackdown on civil society since Xi took power in 2012, tightening restrictions on freedom of speech and detaining hundreds of activists and lawyers.

The Communist Party's disciplinary watchdog launched an investigation into Ren in April before the trial opened at a Beijing court on September 11.

A heavy police presence guarded the courtroom with a handful of supporters gathering outside.

One supporter told AFP they backed Ren because he 'dares to speak the truth'.

Ren was jailed for 18 years on Tuesday for corruption, bribery and embezzlement of public funds.

The verdict claimed he had embezzled almost 50 million yuan (£5.8million) of public funds and accepted bribes worth 1.25 million yuan (£143,774), according to a statement from the Beijing No. 2 Intermediate People's Court.

He was also fined 4.2 million yuan (£484,485).

It also stated that Ren 'abused his power' in his role at Huayuan Group, which caused more than 116 million yuan of losses to the state-owned holding company and more than 53 million yuan worth of property losses for the group.

Online reaction to Ren's sentencing was also being rapidly scrubbed on Tuesday.

'The only real-estate tycoon who dares to tell the truth in China has been censored,' read one comment on Weibo.

'He was born in 1951 and is 69 years old this year.... maybe he won't live to see the day he gets out of jail,' said another.

Ren, who was the son of a former vice-commerce minister and a Communist Party member for decades before he was expelled in July, was well connected with party elites.

He wrote in his memoir that he had been friends with vice-president and former anti-corruption chief Wang Qishan since they were teenagers, when Wang was assigned by their school to mentor the younger Ren.

He is also a controversial figure, particularly over his defence of China's soaring house prices - once telling Chinese media that people who had been unwilling to invest in real estate before the boom 'now deserve to be poor'. 

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