Censors may have come for one of China’s most outspoken corporate leaders, as Beijing tries to scrub bearish economic commentary critical of the government’s strict COVID-Zero campaign from the internet.
On Tuesday, China’s netizens noticed that Weibo had suspended the account of James Liang, chairman of China’s largest online travel company, Trip.com Group. Liang’s Weibo page now displays a message saying the account has been suspended due to “violating relevant laws and regulations.” The social media platform did not elaborate on which laws were broken.
Liang had written posts and articles in April warning about the consequences of the country’s COVID lockdowns and restrictions, notes Reuters. COVID controls have cratered consumption and disrupted production as residents are forced to stay home. Shanghai, the country’s financial center, is now in its eighth-week of lockdown.
In response to a claim from Tsinghua University’s David Li Daokui that China’s COVID policy had helped extend average life expectancy by ten days, Liang estimated that a month of lockdown would reduce average expectancy by four days. “Just a few months of lockdowns will consume all the additional 10 days in life expectancy saved in the past two years,” Liang wrote.
The post, published by think tank Center for China and Globalization, was quickly removed.
Liang is increasingly rare among China’s corporate leaders, in his openness to sharing opinions on Chinese policy. Other executives have stopped posting on Weibo or made their accounts private, as Beijing continues a year-long crackdown to rein in the private sector.
Liang founded Ctrip in 1999 and served as its CEO from 2000 to 2006, and again from 2013 to 2016. He stepped down as CEO in November 2016, handing over to current CEO, Jane Sun. Ctrip rebranded as Trip in 2018, and Liang remains chairman of the board.
Liang is also a frequent writer and commentator, not just on China’s economy, but also on its demographics. In 2012, he co-authored the book Are There Too Many People in China?, which criticized the One Child Policy, and has since continued to write extensively on China’s population growth. Liang’s most recent Weibo post, dated April 29, is an analysis of why Beijing waited so long to loosen restrictions on how many children Chinese families could have.
China’s censors are sensitive to commentary suggesting the country is paying a tough economic price for its COVID-Zero policy. WeChat and Weibo have suspended the accounts of several influential economists who publicly questioned the costs of lockdown.
One such economist, Hong Hao, was suspended by both social media platforms after posting bearish commentary on China’s economy in late April. Hong, who was head of research for Bank of Communications (Bocom) International Holdings at the time, soon left his employer for “personal reasons”, according to the bank.
China’s economy suffered a slowdown in April as the country’s COVID controls in Shanghai, Beijing and elsewhere dragged down consumption and production. National retail sales fell by 11% and industrial output declined 2.9% in April from a year earlier.
On Monday, Beijing announced 33 policy items, including tax refunds and allowing borrowers to postpone debt payments, to support the economy. Yet economists believe that without removing COVID-zero, the economy is unlikely to achieve the 5.5% growth targeted by Beijing.
China is also struggling to contain public frustration with spreading lockdown controls. A video of health officials breaking into someone’s home to disinfect the apartment was viewed 10 million times on Weibo before the social media platform censored it, with some social media users making comparisons to social disruption seen during the upheaval of the Cultural Revolution in the 1960s.
Shanghai reported no COVID deaths and 387 COVID cases yesterday, as the city comes close to a June 1 target for starting to reopen from its lockdown, now seven weeks long. Beijing recorded 47 COVID cases, as the city punished a dozen officials for failing to prevent two COVID clusters. Nearby Tianjin also locked down its city center and asked residents to work-from-home for three days.