How a fatal car crash altered China’s change of leadership

Hu Jintao, left, with Jiang Zemin. Jiang's influence is still strong
Hu Jintao, left, with Jiang Zemin. Jiang's influence is still strong
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“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 high-powered 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 emerged later that the message was false, posted by someone under Mr Ling’s alias almost three months after his death.

The ploy was one of many that tried to suppress news of the Ferrari crash that killed Mr Ling. The outlines of the affair surfaced months ago, but it is now clearer that the crash 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 faction who was brought down when his wife was accused of murdering British businessman Neil Heywood.

But Mr Hu suffered a massive reversal of his own when party elders – led by his predecessor, Jiang Zemin – confronted him with allegations that Ling Jihua, his closest protégé and political fixer, had engineered the cover-up of his son’s death.

The exposure helped tip the balance of difficult negotiations, hastening Mr Hu’s decline; spurring the ascent of China’s new leader, Xi Jinping; and playing into the hands of Mr Jiang, whose associates now dominate the new seven-man leadership at the expense of candidates from Mr Hu’s clique.

Under Mr Hu, Mr Ling had directed the leadership’s administrative centre, the General Office, but was relegated to a less influential post in September. Last month, he failed to advance to the 25-person Politburo and lost his seat on the influential party secretariat.

Mr Hu, who stepped down as party chief, unusually also immediately yielded his post as chairman of the military, meaning he will not retain power as Mr Jiang did. Mr Ling’s future remains unsettled, with party insiders saying his case presents an early test of whether Mr 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, a former top-level party speechwriter, now a political scientist at the University of Victoria in British Columbia.

Mr Ling, 56, built his career in the Communist Youth League. At an early age, he secured the patronage of Mr Hu, who led the Youth League in the early 1980s and brought Mr 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 an Organisation Department official.

“Officials said that if Ling called, it was like Hu calling.”

As his influence grew, Mr Ling tried to keep a low profile. A decade ago, his wife closed a software company she owned and formed a charity that incubates young entrepreneurs.

The couple sent their son Gu to an elite Beijing school under an alias, Wang Ziyun. He graduated from Peking University last year and began graduate studies in education. Before dawn on 18 March, a black Ferrari Spider speeding along a Beijing road ricocheted off a wall, hit a railing and broke in two. Mr Ling was killed instantly, and the two young Tibetan women with him suffered severe injuries. One died months later.

Under normal circumstances, party insiders said, suppressing such news to protect the image of the party would be routine. But Ling Jihua went further, they said, trying to hide his son’s death even from the leadership.

The Beijing Evening News published an article and a photograph, but the topic was immediately scoured from the internet. Later, the families of the two women received payments from China’s largest state oil company, according to a top executive with a major foreign multi-national. He said large sums were paid “to make sure they shut up”.

The issue came to a head in July, as the leadership debated Mr Bo’s fate and worked out the leadership transition. “Just as they were discussing the arrangements, the old comrades raised this,” said an official from a central government media organisation. “They said leaders have to obey party discipline, so this person was not qualified to be promoted to the Politburo.”

By September, party insiders said, Mr Hu was so strained by the Ling affair that he seemed resigned to yielding power. As Mr Hu’s influence faded, Mr Xi began taking charge of military affairs, including a group co-ordinating the response to an escalating row with Japan over disputed islands.