“Thank you. I’m well. Don’t worry,” read the post on a Chinese social networking site. The brief comment, published in June, appeared to come from Ling Gu (令谷), the 23-year-old son of a high-powered aide to Chinese President Hu Jintao (胡錦濤), and it helped quash reports that he had been killed in a Ferrari crash after a night of partying.
It only later emerged that the message was a sham, posted by someone under Ling’s alias — almost three months after his death.
The ploy was one of many in a tangled effort to suppress news of the Ferrari crash that killed Ling and critically injured two young female passengers, one of whom later died. The outlines of the affair surfaced months ago, but it is now becoming clearer that the crash and the botched cover-up had more momentous consequences, altering the course of the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) once-in-a-decade leadership succession last month.
Hu, China’s departing president, entered the summer in an apparently strong position after the disgrace of Bo Xilai (薄熙來), previously a rising member of a rival political network who was brought down when his wife was accused of killing a British businessman. However, Hu suffered a debilitating reversal of his own when party elders — led by his predecessor, Jiang Zemin (江澤民) — confronted him with allegations that Ling Jihua (令計劃), his closest protege and political fixer, had engineered the cover-up of his son’s death.
According to current and former officials, party elites and others, the exposure helped tip the balance of difficult negotiations, hastening Hu’s decline, spurring the ascent of China’s new leader Xi Jinping (習近平) and playing into the hands of Jiang, whose associates dominate the new seven-man leadership at the expense of candidates from Hu’s clique.
The case also shows how the profligate lifestyles of leaders’ relatives and friends can weigh heavily in backstage power tussles, especially as party skulduggery plays out under the intensifying glare of the media.
Numerous party insiders provided information regarding the episode, speaking on the condition of anonymity for fear of reprisals from the authorities. Officials have investigated the aftermath of the car wreck, they say, including looking into accusations that a state oil company paid hush money to the families of the two women.
Under Hu, Ling Jihua had directed the leadership’s administrative center, the General Office, but was relegated to a less influential post in September, ahead of schedule. Last month, he failed to advance to the 25-person CCP politburo and lost his seat on the influential party secretariat.
Hu, who stepped down as party chief, also immediately yielded his post as chairman of the Central Military Commission (CMC), meaning he will not retain elements of power as Jiang did.
“Hu was weakened even before leaving office,” said a mid-ranking official in the Organization Department, the party’s personnel office.
Ling’s future remains unsettled, with party insiders saying that his case presents an early test of whether Xi intends to follow through on public promises to fight high-level corruption.
“He can decide whether to go after Ling Jihua or not,” said Wu Guoguang (吳國光), a former top-level CCP speechwriter, now a political scientist at the University of Victoria in British Columbia, Canada. “Either way, this is a big card in Xi Jinping’s hand.”