BEIJING (AP) — China's Communist Party has placed a property mogul and outspoken government critic on probation for a year after he criticized state media for pledging absolute loyalty to the party.
The punishment handed down by a Beijing district party branch to property tycoon Ren Zhiqiang is one step removed from expulsion, and seen as a stern warning to the tycoon and other party members that certain political dissent will not be tolerated.
The party's Xicheng District committee in Beijing deemed that Ren's "erroneous remarks" online "seriously violated the party's political discipline," the local government's website said in a posting Monday.
In February, President and party leader Xi Jinping visited the official Xinhua News Agency, the party-controlled People's Daily newspaper and state broadcaster CCTV. At each place, he stated that absolute loyalty to the party is the media's highest priority.
Ren's microblogging account, which had 30 million followers, was shut down later that month following his remarks about the media. The country's Internet regulator said then that Ren had published illegal information that harbored "evil influence."
Ren, 65, has stood out as a high-profile personality who has dared to challenge the party leadership in a political environment increasingly intolerant of dissenting voices.
As the party's disciplinary measures go, probation strips the person of their right to vote in party meetings or stand for elections. If party members fail to rectify their mistakes during the probationary period, they can be expelled.
Ren's penalty was more lenient than some people had expected, said political analyst Zhang Ming of Renmin University.
"People thought that Ren might be expelled from the party," Zhang said. "The actual punishment is lighter than that, but it sends the signal that the party's controls on speech will continue and may even be strengthened in the future."
Ren questioned whether taxpayer money should fund media that serve to promote the Communist Party rather than the public, drawing applause as well as a backlash. One news site affiliated with the Beijing municipal party blasted Ren as a booster for capitalism who sought to topple Communist rule.
Calls to Huayuan Group, Ren's Beijing-based real estate company, rang unanswered Monday, a public holiday.