Beijing - Chinese Communist officials will impose "severe" penalties on a property tycoon who criticised overbearing state control of the media to his tens of millions of online followers, the official Xinhua news agency reported Tuesday.
Ren Zhiqiang, nicknamed "the Cannon", developed a huge audience - he had 37 million followers on Sina Weibo alone - with his provocative opinions and blunt defences of economic inequality.
But he has been subjected to a barrage of condemnation in state-run outlets since he questioned whether public money should be spent on party propaganda following visits by President Xi Jinping to three major official media outlets.
Ren is himself a member of the ruling party but his Chinese social media accounts have been closed and Xinhua cited a circular from a Beijing party committee as saying he will be strictly punished and receive severe internal penalties.
The tycoon "has been releasing illegal information and making inappropriate comments online", Xinhua quoted the document as saying, "resulting in a vile influence and damage to the party image".
The announcement followed Beijing's closure of Ren's Sina and Tencent microblog accounts for "spreading illegal information".
The Cyberspace Administration of China said that its actions followed reports that the accounts had exerted a "vile influence".
China has criminalised certain types of online comments, including those that contain "rumours", a broad term that could include criticism of the ruling party.
Last week, Ren was the target of twin columns in the state-affiliated news portal Qianlong.
One of the Qianlong articles - headlined "Who gave Ren the confidence to oppose the Party" - accused the businessman of making capitalist arguments and pursuing Western constitutionalism.
The other castigated him for failing to defend the interests of the party of which he is a member.
"When did the people's government change into the party's government?" Qianlong quoted Ren's since-deleted post as saying. "Is their money the party's? ... Don't use taxpayers' money for things that don't provide them with services."
China's Communist party tolerates no opposition to its rule and newspapers, websites, and broadcast media are strictly controlled. An army of censors patrols social media and many Western news websites are blocked.
Ren has previously drawn flak for calling state-run broadcaster CCTV "the dumbest pig on earth" and for his blunt statements defending the high prices of real estate, once angering an audience member so much that they threw a shoe at him.
He retired from his Beijing-based property company in 2014.