To view this week’s demotion of a key ally to President Hu Jintao as a victory for accountability at the highest levels of China’s leadership would be incorrect. Quite the contrary, it stands as yet another sign that China’s leadership transition is anything but orderly.
Fresh off the Bo Xilai scandal earlier this year, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) is now dealing with a new crisis. This time, the spotlight is on Ling Jihua, a close ally of President Hu Jintao who had been tipped for promotion to the country’s all-powerful Standing Committee of the Politburo. Ling was demoted as the head of the General Office of the party’s Central Committee earlier this week, an influential post that is in charge of security for the top leadership. Now he will head up the United Front Department, a bureaucracy that coordinates party relations with non-party organizations in society.
This demotion can be counted as a victory for incoming president Xi Jinping, who now has an ally at the top of the General Office. Xi’s gain is President Hu Jintao’s loss, as he is now deprived of a potentially crucial channel with which to influence policy after he leaves office. It should be noted that this is par for the course in Chinese politics. Ex-presidents from Deng Xiaoping to Jiang Zemin have continued to shape policy long after leaving office through protégés that they installed into the highest levels of the Chinese government.
But the reason for Ling Jihua’s demotion is where things get interesting. In March of this year, a Ferrari crashed on the Fourth Ring Road in Beijing, killing its driver and seriously injuring two female passengers. Chinese state-run media outlets initially refrained from revealing the identities of those involved, prompting a wave of speculation throughout the Chinese internet as to whether the crash involved family members of high-ranking CCP officials. Search terms like ‘Ferrari’ were consequently barred from Sina Weibo and other popular sites. And then this week, months after the actual crash, the identity of the driver was finally made public: Ling Gu, the 23 year-old son of Ling Jihua.
The official narrative concerning these events goes something like this: In the wake of the Bo Xilai affair, the CCP has begun to crack down on outward displays of wealth by the party elite. Given the large personal fortunes involved (Xi Jinping’s family alone is estimated to be worth over $376 million), such displays risk popular anger towards a party that is seen as playing by its own set of rules. As such, Ling Jihua’s career was sunk because he wasn’t able to reign in his own house; he broke the rules, and he was punished.
But the reality is likely far more complex and Machiavellian, and outsider observers can only guess at the details due to the opaque nature of Chinese power politics.
There are two key points in the Ling Jihua affair indicating some kind of internal intrigue. First of all, there’s the length of time that passed between the car crash and Ling Jihua’s demotion. Thanks to internet filters and keyword blocking, a wide grassroots consensus never emerged over which official was involved. Moreover, the Ling Gu crash is not the first time that this kind of thing has happened, and the party has proven itself able to keep a lid on scandals in the past. Rather, it seems that a political opponent of Hu Jintao used the opportunity provided by the Bo Xilai scandal to deprive the outgoing president of a key ally in the next administration.
The manner in which the Global Times initially reported the crash also implies backroom machinations. Back in March, the state-run and generally tight-lipped newspaper suggested that the crash involved a high-level official’s family and that it was being covered up. This fleeting glimpse of journalistic accuracy, along with subsequent reports that the crash victims were in various states of undress and engaging in ‘sex games,’ both point to controlled leaks to the press that were aimed at bringing down a political opponent.
Although we may never know the truth about who brought down Ling Jihua, we can be sure that it will send further ripples through leadership circles moving into the transition. The Hu Jintao faction has suffered a serious blow, and it remains to be seen whether or not they will respond in turn against Xi’s expanding influence.