BEIJING (TIP): “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, the 23-year-old son of a highpowered aide to China’s president, 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 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 once-in-a-decade leadership succession last month. China’s departing president, Hu Jintao, entered the summer in an apparently strong position after the disgrace of Bo Xilai, previously a rising member of a rival political network who was brought down when his wife was accused of murdering a British businessman.
But Hu suffered a debilitating reversal of his own when party elders — led by his predecessor, Jiang Zemin — confronted him with allegations that Ling Jihua, 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; 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 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 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 Politburo and lost his seat on the influential party secretariat. Hu, who stepped down as party chief, immediately yielded his post as chairman of the military, meaning he will not retain power as Jiang did. “Hu was weakened even before leaving office,” said a midranking 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 highlevel corruption. “He can decide whether to go after Ling Jihua or not,” said Wu Guoguang, a former top-level party speechwriter, now a political scientist at the University of Victoria in British Columbia. “Either way, this is a big card in Xi Jinping’s hand.” Ling, 56, built his career in the Communist Youth League. At an early age, he secured the patronage of Hu, who led the Youth League in the early 1980s and brought Ling to the General Office in 1995. “Hu didn’t come with a lot of friends, but Ling was someone he knew he could trust,” said the organization department official. ”
Officials said that if Ling called, it was like Hu calling.” Ling played a central role in moving Youth League veterans into high offices and undermining Hu’s adversaries. Ling also wielded leverage over internet censorship of leaders’ affairs, and sought to use it to benefit his patron. “Negative publicity, including untruths, about Xi Jinping were not suppressed the way publicity about Hu Jintao was,” said one associate of party leaders. As his influence grew, Ling tried to keep a low profile. About a decade ago, his wife closed a software company she owned and formed a nonprofit foundation that incubates young entrepreneurs. The couple sent their son, Ling Gu, to an elite Beijing high school under an alias, Wang Ziyun.