BEIJING — A prominent Communist party member who criticized Chinese leader Xi Jinping’s handling of the coronavirus outbreak is being investigated on suspicion of a “severe violation of discipline and law,” a joint government-party watchdog said.Ren Zhiqiang is a former head of state-run real estate conglomerate Huayuan Group and a party member who has become known for his outspokenness on sensitive topics such as press censorship.He dropped from sight in mid-March after publishing an online essay that criticized the leadership’s handling of the virus outbreak that originated in December in central China. While government data show COVID-19 apparently subsiding in China, more than 1.4 million people have been infected worldwide.A one-sentence notice issued Tuesday by the party-government joint disciplinary watchdog body in Beijing’s western district said Ren was undergoing a “review and monitoring investigation” but gave no details and did not mention Ren’s article or previous statements.The article, since deleted by China’s censors, is an example of the various criticisms of Xi and the party’s handling of the emergency that have appeared online, the one space where Chinese can exercise a modicum of free speech, albeit under the close watch of party monitors.Criticism has chiefly focused on allegations of early

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