Chinese leadership reshuffle revives prospect of a high-level scandal

September 3, 2012

A high-level Chinese leadership reshuffle over the weekend has revived media interest in a March car accident linked to an influential official’s son, raising the prospect of a fresh political scandal just weeks before a sensitive, once-in-a-decade power transition.

Details of the crash on a Beijing street remain murky, but according to some accounts it involved the son of Ling Jihua, an ally of President Hu Jintao who was moved Saturday from his post as head of the Communist Party’s General Office of the Central Committee — the rough equivalent of the U.S. president’s chief of staff — to a less powerful job handling relationships with those outside the party.

Rumors of the link had swirled since the March 18 incident, but by Monday, Hong Kong’s South China Morning Post had forced them into the purview of party officials, publishing a front-page story alleging that the crash involved a sleek Ferrari, two naked or semi-naked women and a half-clothed man the paper identified as Ling’s son.

Later Monday, the London-based Reuters news agency weighed in with a tamer version, attributing some, but not all, of the same details to sources of it own — including two who said Ling’s son had died in the crash and one who said he had not.

The allegations touched on some of the flash points China’s leaders fear most, especially the image of privileged children of party officials living in extreme luxury, unbound by law or consequences. They also hit the headlines just as the party leadership may have felt it was beginning to contain the Bo Xilai saga, one of the most divisive and embarrassing episodes in China’s recent political history.

Back in March, authorities reacted quickly to the accident, preventing most Chinese media from covering it, banning its mention on microblogs and blocking several search terms, including “Ferrari.”

In the 24 hours after the leadership reshuffle propelled the crash back into the news, authorities took similar measures, including blocking the South China Morning Post’s article — although not the rest of its Web site.

A person familiar with the case, speaking on the condition of anonymity for fear of government reprisal, said Monday that Beijing traffic police had not been able to identify the man in the car at the scene of the accident, where he died. One of the women died later, but the second woman survived, the person said.

Before he was reassigned, Ling had worked more closely with Hu than most other party officials. He oversaw the day-to-day details of Hu’s meetings and travel arrangements and those of many other top leaders. He had been viewed as a contender for the party’s 25-member Politburo, a position near the top of China’s political hierarchy.

The timing of Ling’s transfer, just ahead of the upcoming leadership change, left experts speculating on its significance. His replacement, former Guizhou party secretary Li Zhanshu, also has ties to Hu. But Li is also thought to have some ties with Xi Jinping, the leader expected to succeed Hu — a double connection that party leaders may have viewed as necessary as they navigate the transition.

William Wan is The Post’s China correspondent based in Beijing. He served previously as a religion reporter and diplomatic correspondent.
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