SEOUL — A Beijing court sentenced a prominent tycoon turned social critic to 18 years in prison after his attacks on Chinese leader Xi Jinping made waves, in a case that evoked political purges seven years earlier when Xi came to power.

Scholars say the harsh punishment indicates the growing dissent Xi is facing from his own Chinese Communist Party elite, as he takes the country down a more authoritarian path. Such internal division has historically pushed Communist governments to a more forceful, albeit brittle, rule.

Ren Zhiqiang, who was the son of a vice minister, has been a marked man since February, when he is thought to have written an essay criticizing Xi’s response to the coronavirus outbreak.

“I saw not an emperor standing there exhibiting his ‘new clothes,’ but a clown who was stripped naked and insisted on continuing being emperor,” the essay said.

Ren was placed under investigation by the Chinese Communist Party in April.

In writing an unsparing criticism of Xi, Ren would have expected punishment. Yet as a member by birth of China’s political elite, the 69-year-old probably did not expect the cost to be imprisonment until age 87 — a punishment unheard of in recent years for a party insider speaking out of turn, said Chongyi Feng, associate professor of Chinese studies at the University of Technology in Sydney.

“There had been an unspoken rule that the ‘second red generation’ would not be punished for their political expression,” said Feng, using a term for the children of China’s founding Communist officials. “Because they are part of the ruling elite.”

The Second Intermediate Court of Beijing said on its website Tuesday that Ren was sentenced to 18 years in prison and fined about $619,000 for corruption and bribery in his previous position as chairman of Huayuan Real Estate Group. It made no mention of Ren’s political commentary.

It was not possible to reach Ren on Tuesday to confirm that the essay was his, although scholars said the lack of a denial from him all these months suggested that it was real. The court said in its statement that Ren would not appeal the decision.

It was unclear whether he had an attorney. Mo Shaoping, a prominent activist lawyer in Beijing, said it was the understanding of lawyers in the city that Ren did not have legal counsel and defended himself in court.

A telephone operator at the court on Tuesday said there is no procedure for receiving news media requests, then hung up.

Feng said he thinks the case was more about political retribution than graft, as Ren has come under official scrutiny several times in past years without facing prosecution. Graft is so endemic in China that it’s also possible that previous investigators just chose not to press on with prosecution.

The harsh punishment probably was meant to send a warning to other party members to toe the line, said Steve Tsang, director of the SOAS China Institute in London.

“Mister Xi is saying that, ‘Say what you will, I am the emperor,’ ” Tsang said. “ ‘And this is what you get for disrespecting the emperor.’ ”

While Ren made his fortune in real estate, he moved in elite political circles from an early age, as the son of a former vice commerce minister. In recent years, the Huayuan chairman found his second calling as an online pundit, amassing a following of 17 million on the Weibo social media platform and the nickname "Big Cannon."

Ren was "one of the last openly critical public intellectuals in China," said Nis Grünberg, a researcher at the Mercator Institute for China Studies in Berlin. "In those circles, he's the last of the relatively outspoken people."

Several times in the past, he clashed with the party without serious consequences. In 2014, he called the official broadcaster CCTV "the dumbest pig on Earth," and two years later, he publicly challenged Xi's declaration that state-run media should toe the party line.

In some ways, Ren's downfall harks back to Xi's purge of his political enemies early in his first term. Like former Chongqing party chief Bo Xilai, and former security czar Zhou Yongkang, Ren posed a potential threat as a party insider — far more so than grass-roots activists who protest Xi.

His sentencing came after months of whispered dissatisfaction among China's public intellectuals, some of whom have escaped punishment by fleeing abroad. Cai Xia, a former professor at China's Central Party School, was expelled from the party in August for criticizing Xi's administration. She now lives in the United States.

The February essay attributed to Ren castigated Xi and the party for a weak response to the coronavirus outbreak, calling it a “crisis of governance.”

“When the epidemic had already broken out, they wouldn’t dare admit it to the public without the king’s command,” the essay said. “They wouldn’t dare announce the facts of the matter, and instead used the method of catching and criticizing ‘rumors’ to restrict the spread of truth, resulting in the disease’s uncontainable spread.”