Weeks before Ren Zhiqiang disappeared, leading to fears among his friends and fans that he had been picked up by the Chinese authorities, the 69-year-old former property mogul locked himself up.
It happened at an exhibition he held in December to show off his wood sculptures, a late-life passion after retirement and rising censorship left him little else to do. He barred himself inside a small work studio, so that attendees could view him only through a small window or from the open roof.
It was performance art, Mr. Ren explained to his friends, to show his isolation after the government barred him from social media and giving speeches. When friends asked how the government might react, he smirked the way he usually did when challenging authority.
Now, Mr. Ren may have gone further than the current leadership will allow.
His friends say he vanished this month after writing an essay critical of the Chinese government’s response to the coronavirus outbreak. The essay, which was shared widely within private internet message groups, never named Xi Jinping, China’s top leader. But it said the actions of a power-hungry “clown” and the Communist Party’s strict limits on free speech had exacerbated the epidemic. It declared that the party should “wake up from ignorance” and oust the leaders holding it back, just as it did with the leaders known as the “Gang of Four” in 1976, ending the turmoil of the Cultural Revolution.
The disappearance of Mr. Ren, a longtime critic of the Chinese government, adds to fears that China is sliding backward and abandoning the reforms that saved it from extreme poverty and international isolation. Mr. Ren was no radical — he was a decades-long loyal Communist Party member, the former leader of a state-run company and a friend to some of China’s most powerful politicians. He emerged in what now seems a distant time, from the 1980s to the period before Mr. Xi became top leader, when the party brooked no challenge to its rule but allowed some individuals to question some of its choices.
Mr. Ren’s fate remains unclear. But if he was punished for his writing, it suggests China’s leadership won’t tolerate criticism no matter how justified it might be.
Like Mr. Xi, Mr. Ren was born into party royalty. His father was a deputy commerce minister. His mother went to school with the North Korean dictator Kim Il-sung, who held him in a photo when he was a baby, according to his social media posts and media interviews.
He was also well connected. He has been friends with Vice President Wang Qishan of China since he was in junior high. Mr. Ren wrote in his 2013 autobiography that Mr. Wang would sometimes call him late in the evening and chat for hours.
Mr. Ren hired Liu He, China’s main negotiator in the trade war with the United States, as a part-time researcher when Mr. Liu was a graduate student. Yu Zhengsheng, a former member of the party’s Politburo Standing Committee, its highest ruling body, worked with Mr. Ren when he was the construction minister and wrote the introduction of Mr. Ren’s first book in 2002.
Mr. Yu wrote that he had first noticed Mr. Ren at a conference in 1998, when the latter attacked a new housing policy.
“As one of the people who proposed the policy, I of course disagreed with him,” Mr. Yu wrote. “But his candid remarks and philosophical argument left a deep impression on me. After the meeting, I told relevant comrades that they shouldn’t be repulsed by his remarks and should study the reasonable parts of his argument.”
Mr. Ren won respect from government officials because they came to believe his criticisms were made in good faith. Dissent, he often told others, is the highest form of patriotism.
“I believe Ren Zhiqiang is 90 percent like us,” wrote Ning Gaoning, a respected executive who has run some of China’s biggest state-run conglomerates, in the introduction for Mr. Ren’s 2013 autobiography. “The other 10 percent of his brain is made up of something different from us.”
“He is too competitive,” wrote Mr. Ning, who is known as Frank Ning in the West. “He takes things too seriously. He likes to get to the bottom of everything. He studies intensively but is way too confident. And he is always concerned about the affairs of the state.”
In one sense, it is a minor miracle that Mr. Ren — nicknamed the Big Cannon for his tendency to air his provocative views — managed to stay out of jail for so long. As chairman of a state-controlled real estate developer, he clashed with city and central government officials, including Mr. Yu. He sued two ministries over payment disputes and cut off the heating supply of a big state-owned bookstore after it repeatedly failed to pay construction fees, according to his autobiography. He prompted one Beijing mayor to declare that a company that sued the government should not exist, he wrote.
He was influenced by free-market economists like Milton Friedman and Friedrich Hayek. He believed government control needed to be checked.
“State power in any country is greedy, so it needs to be subject to public supervision,” he wrote in his autobiography. “Otherwise, the power will be abused and everybody will suffer from it.”
Mr. Ren became an important national voice between 2010 and 2015, when Weibo, China’s equivalent of Twitter, became a public arena where people shared their grievances and debated ideas. Before then, he was widely hated in China because he declared that his job was to build housing for the rich, and he blamed government policies for a lack of affordable housing. As housing prices surged despite government cool-down efforts, people began to see him as honest instead of greedy.
In 2011, near the peak of China’s openness to new ideas, Mr. Ren, an avid reader, started a book club. It drew China’s top entrepreneurs, intellectuals and government officials. Books included Alexis de Tocqueville’s “Democracy in America” and Hannah Arendt’s “The Origins of Totalitarianism.” The events became so popular that people had to apply through a lottery system to join. Some people flew to Beijing from all over the country to attend.
Mr. Ren said his goal was to help China’s young generation develop independent thinking so it would not follow the orders of authority slavishly. The government said no to some topics and speakers, but left it largely alone.
By early 2016, he had nearly 38 million followers on Weibo. But party attitudes toward expression were changing.
Retribution was swift. His Weibo account was deleted. His party membership was suspended for a year. His passport was taken away. Members of his family weren’t allowed to leave the country. He faced constant investigations and interrogations.
He stopped dying his hair, and it went all white quickly. He sometimes looked sullen at dinners, and some of his friends were worried that he was suffering from depression. His health became an issue as well — he had been scheduled for a biopsy on suspicion of prostate cancer after the Lunar New Year holiday.
In May, he started making sculptures out of wood. Some of it looked natural, as he had worked with the knotted branches and roots of trees. For other works, he cut and carved pieces to arrange them into skylines and landscapes. He was rejuvenated and overjoyed, friends said.
Then came the coronavirus outbreak. When doctors working with the disease tried to publicly warn China about the outbreak, they were threatened by government officials. For Mr. Ren, friends said, this confirmed his argument that a media that serves the party couldn’t serve the people.
“Without a media representing the interests of the people by publishing the actual facts,” he wrote in the essay that circulated this year, “people’s lives are being ravaged by both the virus and the major illness of the system.”
He shared the essay with a few friends. Three days after his 69th birthday, he disappeared. His assistant and his son have disappeared, too.