Why critical Chinese disappear: ‘No one is bigger than the party’

From a possible death to a silent retreat to prison. The wildest rumors circulated about Jack Ma. The owner of billion-dollar company Alibaba, who normally does not shy away from publicity, was suddenly nowhere to be seen.

But this morning he spoke up for the first time in nearly three months. In a video message Jack Ma spoke to rural teachers who had won awards.

The video reassures Chinese people who were concerned about the popular Internet billionaire. “I did expect that at some point he would just turn up in freedom”, says Frans-Paul van der Putten.

According to the China expert at the Clingendael Institute, there were no direct indications that he had done anything criminal. Still, Jack Ma went on slippery ice after a critical speech last October, his last public appearance before his months-long disappearance.

Criticism impossible

In that speech he criticized China’s economic regulators. According to him, they would hinder innovation of technology companies. “The fact that he does not go public for months shows that this kind of criticism is impossible”, says Van Der Putten.

“But it remains to be seen what exactly happened to him in recent months. His criticism mainly stood up for his own company and interests. It does not immediately make him a political dissident. Although the Communist Party does have the power to to punish criticism harshly. “

Zhiqiang Ren, among others, noted. The former wealthy real estate magnate did not mince words when he talked about the Communist Party. For a long time, this critical attitude in front of an audience of millions on social media caused him few problems. Until he suddenly disappeared last March.

Shortly before that, he had lashed out at the Chinese government in a publication. According to him, the corona policy was not good and put civilians unnecessarily at risk. The most striking statement concerned President Xi Jinping, who Ren called a clown.


Friends of Ren did not hear from him for months. Until he had to appear in court in September. He gave him 18 years in prison on suspicion of corruption. An instrument with which political enemies of the president, according to Van der Putten, are often tackled.

“Unlike ours, the government and companies in China are very closely intertwined. For civil servants and people in the business world it is actually impossible to function without each other. This quickly creates corrupt situations or cases that can be explained in this way. “

Political enemies

According to the China expert, just because it is part of the system does not mean that everyone can automatically get into trouble. You run that risk when you abuse the situation extremely much. “Or when, like Ren, you create too many political enemies. Then persecution is soon lurking.”

Another high-profile disappearance is that of China’s most famous actress. Fan Bingbing disappeared from the radar in early 2018. That had nothing to do with political statements, but with tax evasion.

That only became clear when she appeared in court after four months in prison. There she was fined more than 100 million euros. Commenting on her social media accounts, she said she had calmed down from her time in captivity. She also expressed her respect for the Chinese authorities.

Watch what you do

“This also turns her into a warning for others,” says Van der Putten. “Such open penance acts as a signal to other celebrities and influential people. The message is: be careful what you do.”

According to the China expert, it is not unique that a mysterious disappearance takes place before such a conviction. “That is in keeping with the nature of the political system in China. The idea is that when people commit mistakes, they should be re-educated rather than punished.”

Tension field

Safeguarding the power of the Communist Party in China is the highest and most important goal. It makes the boundary between criticizing and posing a risk to the party thin, according to Van der Putten.

“You can see what is happening with Jack Ma. China needs entrepreneurs with guts, like him, to be able to grow. But at the same time, no one should become bigger than the party. A complicated field of tension.”


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