China’s carefully scripted leadership transition appears to have suffered another glitch: a fatal car crash involving a Ferrari, a privileged son and two women.
According to several well-connected party officials, the crash, on Beijing’s Fourth Ring Road earlier this year, killed the man on impact and left both women seriously injured. All were said to have been in various states of undress, according to these officials.
It might have been just another example of China’s crassly rich elite exercising bad judgment — except for the identity of the driver. On Monday, the officials said he was the son of one of China’s most powerful men, Ling Jihua (令計劃), 55, a close ally of the departing Chinese President Hu Jintao (胡錦濤).
The connection had apparently been suppressed until this past weekend, when Ling suffered a sharp demotion instead of a lateral move or a promotion after he left his role as head of the government’s nerve center, the General Office of the party’s Central Committee. According to the government announcement, he will lead the United Front Work Department, a largely powerless post aimed at improving ties with groups in society, though some analysts said he could still reach the Politburo at some point.
The shift comes in the midst of major behind-the-scenes jockeying as the once-in-a-decade power transition unfolds.
“The question is how this will affect Hu Jintao,” said Joseph Fewsmith, a Boston University professor. “To have to drop Ling Jihua is embarrassing. He lost a key ally here.”
The most straightforward analysis is that Ling’s demise could help Chinese Vice President Xi Jinping (習近平), consolidate power more quickly by sidelining one of Hu’s proteges, through whom Hu might have been able to exercise power even after retiring, a common tactic. Ling’s replacement at the General Office of the Central Committee is a provincial official, Li Zhanshu (栗戰書), who has been friends with Xi since the two served in Hebei Province in the 1980s.
However, on another level, Ling’s downfall could hurt the transition. With Ling now essentially sidelined, Hu and his faction may feel slighted, implying that carefully shaped compromises designed to ease Xi’s rise may be unraveling.
The timing is particularly difficult, coming just as the leadership has been dealing with another shock to the system: the fall of a senior leader, Bo Xilai (薄熙來). Bo lost his prominent party positions after his wife was detained in the murder of a British businessman, for which she has now been convicted.
The circumstances surrounding the crash were first posted this past summer on overseas Web sites, but remained unconfirmed until reported in the South China Morning Post on Monday. Reuters then also confirmed most of the details on Monday, although one of its sources said Ling’s son did not die in the crash.
Party officials reached by the New York Times confirmed the son’s death, the make of the car and the presence of the two women, as well as their incomplete dress.
The details, salacious as they are, are important because Bo lost his positions for “family management” failings. Many party members or their close family members often violate rules by engaging in business — but are expected to keep it under wraps.