His nickname in China was “The Cannon,” and Ren Zhiqiang’s latest commentary was among his most explosive yet.

Mr. Ren, an outspoken property tycoon in Beijing, wrote in a scathing essay that China’s leader, Xi Jinping, was a power-hungry “clown.” He said the ruling Communist Party’s strict limits on free speech had exacerbated the coronavirus epidemic.

Now Mr. Ren, one of the most prominent critics of Mr. Xi in mainland China, is missing, his friends said on Saturday.

His disappearance comes amid a far-reaching campaign by the party to quash criticism of its slow, secretive initial response to the epidemic, which has killed over 3,100 people in China and sickened more than 80,000.

In recent weeks, an essay by Mr. Ren began circulating among elite circles in China and abroad. In it, he blamed the government for silencing whistle-blowers and trying to conceal the outbreak, which began in the central city of Wuhan in December.

While he did not explicitly use Mr. Xi’s name in the commentary, Mr. Ren left no doubt he was speaking about China’s leader, repeatedly referencing Mr. Xi’s speeches and actions.

“I see not an emperor standing there exhibiting his ‘new clothes,’ but a clown who stripped naked and insisted on continuing to be an emperor,” he wrote.

Addressing Mr. Xi, he wrote: “You don’t in the slightest hide your resolute ambition to be an emperor and your determination to destroy anyone who won’t let you.”

Mr. Ren, 69, is the retired chairman of Huayuan Properties, a real estate developer. In 2016, Mr. Ren came under scrutiny after writing on his microblog that China’s news media should serve the people, not the party, contradicting one of Mr. Xi’s high-profile pronouncements. His remarks offered a window into growing frustration among Chinese intellectuals and entrepreneurs over Mr. Xi’s increasingly authoritarian rule.

The party moved quickly to censure him, saying he had “lost his party spirit.” But he continued to speak out on other topics, such as China’s strict policies to limit the population in big cities.

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