Chinese real estate mogul Ren Zhiqiang poses in his office in Beijing in December 2012.  (Color China Photo via AP)

You like potato, I like potahto. But if the Communist Party tells us to call it a radish, then a radish it is.

China’s war on free speech — and the silencing of an influential real estate tycoon who some have nicknamed China’s “Donald Trump” for his outspoken views – has sparked some dark humor online. But in among the jokes about vegetables, there is also a genuine unease and fear.

Retired property developer and celebrity blogger Ren Zhiqiang faced virulent criticism in Party-controlled media last week for some blunt criticism of President Xi Jinping’s tightening of media controls. More commonly nicknamed “Cannon Ren” for his provocative political opinions, the tycoon had 38 million followers on Weibo – until China's top Internet regulator ordered his account to be closed Sunday.

With capital already flowing out of the country at an alarming rate and private investment growth sluggish, some commentators said the attack on such an influential figure was a dangerous signal to send to an already nervous business elite.

“This may be a more chilling and alarming event for tycoons and Beijing elite than anything that has happened in years, or at least since the assault on the hyper-connected CITIC Securities,” wrote Bill Bishop in his influential Sinocism newsletter. “If Xi wants to encourage more capital flight this is one way to do it ...”

Last year, police also arrested at least seven senior executives of China’s top investment bank, CITIC Securities, for insider trading, in a probe that followed a stock market crash. Another of China’s best-known entrepreneurs, Guo Guangchang — nicknamed China’s Warren Buffett — also disappeared for several days in December, while “assisting the authorities with an investigation.”

The latest controversy began when President Xi paid a visit to China Central Television, People’s Daily and the Xinhua news agency earlier this month.

Xi underlined in no uncertain terms that the media outlets needed to “reflect the will of the Party, mirror the views of the Party, preserve the authority of the Party, preserve the unity of the Party and achieve love of the Party, protection of the Party and acting for the Party.” In a literal translation, media must be “surnamed Party,” and “belong to the Party family.”

At Hong Kong University’s China Media Project, David Bandurski said Xi had turned his back on a long-held notion that the media and public opinion might have some – albeit limited — supervisory role over the Party. Instead, the media’s only role was to guide public opinion through Party propaganda.

On his Weibo account, “Cannon Ren” took aim.

“When did the ‘People’s Government’ turn into the ‘Party’s Government,’” he asked. “Don’t use taxpayers money to fund things that don’t provide them with services.”

Later he went further: “Once all the media is part of one family and stops representing the interests of the people, then the people will be cast aside and left in some forgotten corner.”

In Party-controlled media, commentators lined up to criticize Ren for daring to question the unity between party and people, for questioning the Party’s legitimacy, for speaking “for capitalism,” and even trying to advance the dreaded cause of “Western constitutional democracy.” His motives were criticized as “vicious,” and his comments as a “source of shame.”

“How did the former Soviet Union fall? First to fall was the media,” argued one critique published on Qianlong.com, a website affiliated with the Beijing municipal party, and translated by the website, China Change.

“He grew up under the party’s loving care and later grew rich under the party’s wise leadership and correct policy direction,” wrote another commentator on the news portal of the party committee and provincial government of Jiangsu. “There is a saying: ‘He who drinks the water should not forget who dug the well.’”

But one influential voice spoke out in Ren’s defence.

Central Party School professor Cai Xia posted a reaction piece online arguing that Ren’s comments underscored the lack of internal channels for Party members to discuss policy, the South China Morning Post reported. But Cai's article vanished from cyberspace soon after it was posted, the SCMP noted.

Cai’s argument reflects a growing concern among experts that Xi’s crackdown on internal dissent will leave him surrounded by sycophants and unable to hear constructive criticism.

“Mirror, mirror on the wall, who is the fairest of them all?” Bandurski wrote in a blog post last week. “You, President Xi, are the fairest.”

[China’s Xi tells grumbling party cadres: ‘Don’t talk back]

The comparison between Ren and Trump is tenuous, aside from their property portfolios and penchant for saying what they think. But Ren has courted controversy many times before, arguing that the poor have only themselves to blame, because they failed to invest in property earlier, while those who jumped on the property ladder are rich. He also caused an intense discussion on social media last year with a stinging critique of Communist Party "slogans" that he said had deceived people for years.

A former People's Liberation Army soldier, and a Party member, Ren was long seen as untouchable because of his close links with top Party officials, writing in his memoir that he was at school with the powerful head of the anti-corruption agency, Wang Qishan, and claiming Wang still called him occasionally in the middle of the night.

Cartoonist Kuang Biao and some commentators — including author and former Washington Post Beijing bureau chief John Pomfret — even saw echoes of the Cultural Revolution unleashed by Mao Zedong in 1966, when Party members would be publicly shamed for their “rightist” and “counter-revolutionary” views.

Others made references to George Orwell’s portrait of a society under Big Brother’s authoritarian rule.

“1984 was supposed to be a warning, not an instruction,” one user wrote in a widely shared comment.

But if some people were scared by Ren’s silencing, others responded by mocking the whole episode.

One Netizen dug up an old Weibo post from the People’s Daily, showing a photograph of two sweet potatoes. In it, the Party newspaper had asked followers to respond with the name of the vegetable in their part of China.

The China Change website said Netizens sent in 10,000 answers, many mocking the Party’s suffocating control of information.

“I won’t dare to improperly discuss its name: the Party has to say,” one wrote. “You can tell us what it’s called by sending out a circular,” wrote another.

“If Mr Zhao says it’s a sweet potato, then it’s a sweet potato,” wrote another, using the widely used nickname Zhao to refer to Party elites. “If Mr Zhao, says it’s a radish, then it’s a radish. If Mr Zhao says it’s a Teletubby, then it’s a Teletubby.”

Other Netizens dusted off a 2013 Xinhua story in which Xi Jinping said the “Communist Party should be tolerant of harsh criticism.” A link to the piece was reposted more than 72,000 times.

“I almost believed him,” one user wrote.

“He as aiming to hook the target out, and beat it,” wrote another, echoing the way Mao encouraged criticism of the Party in his “Hundred Flowers Movement” in 1956, and then purged those who dared to speak out.

A song first issued in September 2015 was also widely reposted. In it, singer Hu Xiaoming tried to portray the president, known as Xi Dada or Uncle Xi, as the perfect Chinese husband.

“If you want to marry, marry someone like Xi Dada, who is decisive in acts and is serious in work; no matter it’s flies or tigers, monsters and freaks, he will get all of them down and never let it go,” the chorus goes, referring to Xi’s pledge to root out the tigers and flies – high and low-ranking officials – who are corrupt.

“If you want to marry, marry someone like Xi Dada, a man full of heroism with an unyielding spirit; no matter how the world changes and how many difficulties lie ahead, he will insist and keep moving forward.”

Some social media users said it felt like China has moved back to Mao’s era, while others mockingly suggested Xi should just “be crowned already” as emperor. Others drew parallels with another nearby regime.

“I apologize for having mocked North Korea,” one said.

Xu Jing and Xu Yangjingjing contributed to this report.

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