BEIJING — When a sharp-tongued real estate tycoon publicly derided President Xi Jinping’s demand for unstinting loyalty to the Communist Party from the Chinese news media, the party’s response was predictably swift and harsh.
His microblogs, which had tens of millions of followers, were erased overnight. Party websites unleashed an onslaught, calling the tycoon, Ren Zhiqiang, a capitalist traitor in language reminiscent of the Mao-era purges. The authorities vowed further punishment.
What happened next, however, was a startling departure from the standard script.
Journalists, scholars and party insiders came forward to defend Ren. A professor at the party’s top academy spoke up. A prominent magazine rebuked censors. A letter supporting him signed by a staff member at the state news agency spread online. A party newspaper warned about the risks of crushing all dissent.
The unexpected backlash sent a shiver through the political landscape here, exposing deepening unease about the adulatory promotion of Xi and his demands for unquestioning public obedience.
“The Ren incident has been an eruption of feelings pent up inside the system for a long time,” said Zhang Lifan, a Beijing businessman and historian. “I think a lot of people felt fed up, and they felt that finally somebody had spoken up. The backlash over the attacks on Ren Zhiqiang went beyond what the authorities expected.”
Ren has become a symbol of growing frustration, including inside the Beijing establishment, with the incessant demands for conformity to Xi’s strictures.
“It’s not just an issue of Ren Zhiqiang,” Mao Yushi, a liberal economist in Beijing and a longtime friend of Ren’s, said in an interview. “The whole space of free public opinion has contracted. It’s not an isolated case.”
Ren, an outspoken Beijing property developer with swaggering self-assurance, has been called the Chinese Donald Trump.
As he approached retirement a few years ago, he embraced Twitter-like microblogs to defend property developers from complaints of corruption, and started posting blunt views about the country.
Ren was never a typical liberal; he disdained the protesters who occupied Tiananmen Square in 1989. But as Xi has amassed power, Ren’s posts reflected growing irritation with the authoritarian turn in politics.
The current skirmish began last month after Xi made highly publicized visits to the three main Communist Party and state news organizations to reinforce a new policy: State media must “speak for the party’s will” and “protect the party’s authority,” he said.
As Xi bathed in the adoring news coverage of his pronouncements, Ren fired off a few gruff comments to his nearly 38 million followers on Sina.com Weibo, China’s equivalent of Twitter.
“When did the people’s government turn into the party’s government?” he wrote in one post.
“Don’t use taxpayers’ money to do stuff that doesn’t provide services to the taxpayers,” he wrote in another. “The people have been tossed into a forgotten corner.”
Until these remarks, Ren, 65, had seemed to be at least partly protected by his elite status in the Communist Party as the son of a senior revolutionary who became a vice minister of commerce. He went into business, first selling rabbit pelts, as Deng Xiaoping’s market reforms were coursing through China in the 1980s, and later built a fortune in real estate.
He is also a friend of the party’s powerful anti-corruption chief, Wang Qishan, a relationship that has raised intriguing questions about the possibility of deeper rivalries at play.
Wang was Ren’s political instructor in junior high school, and still “occasionally calls late at night” to chat, Ren wrote in a 2013 memoir.
But this time, Ren’s background offered no immunity.
The Cyberspace Administration office said he had broken the law by suggesting that the party and the people might not be inseparable, and it wiped out his microblog accounts. Party websites and newspapers heaped scorn on him, and party officials said he would face further punishment.
“Ren Zhiqiang represents a capitalist overturn-the-heavens faction,” said a commentary on Qianlong, a news website run by the Beijing city propaganda authorities.
Another commentary on the website hinted that Ren had the temerity to criticize Xi only because of Ren’s ties to Wang or other senior officials.
“We can’t help asking where a party member, who can ignore the party constitution, finds the gall to brazenly oppose the party,” it said. “This Ren Zhiqiang who likes to call leaders in the deep of the night, just who gave him the ‘courage’ to come forward and push over the wall?”
Ren has not commented publicly since he was criticized for his comments, and repeated calls to his cellphone were not answered.
The controversy does not suggest that Xi’s control is in danger; he remains powerful and popular with many Chinese people, who have welcomed his drive against graft.
But the authorities did not appear ready for the counteroffensive in support of Ren.
Several of his defenders said the episode had crystallized their fears that the exaltation of Xi and severe treatment of even mild dissent threatened to curtail the already limited room for debate. Some said Ren’s vilification carried worrisome echoes of the “mass criticism” of the decade-long Cultural Revolution, which began in 1966.
And these concerns came not just from liberals outside the Communist Party.
Cai Xia, a professor at the Central Party School, the party’s main academy for training officials, wrote in an essay that Ren’s treatment “smacks of a political trial.”
“Controversy over different viewpoints is normal,” she wrote. “Cracking down on different opinions will bring severe dangers to the party.” The essay was later scrubbed from Chinese websites and condemned by a party newspaper.
Even in the National People’s Congress, the party-controlled legislature, hints of discontent emerged during an annual meeting that ended this week. Caixin, a Chinese magazine, quoted one member of a consultative council as saying, “Everyone is a bit dazed, and people don’t want to talk so much.”