HONG KONG — When the chief of staff to President Hu Jintao was moved to a lesser position last week, it sounded like so much inside baseball, a ho-hum reshuffling of personnel as the Chinese Communist Party prepares for a leadership change this autumn.
Political analysts said the move did not bode well for Mr. Hu, and it will now be nearly impossible for him to place the aide, Ling Jihua, on the Politburo Standing Committee, the nine-member holy of holies that makes the Big Decisions in China. Mr. Ling might even lose out on joining the party’s 25-member Politburo.
But the subtext to his demotion is much more nuanced, and it was illuminated by a story in the South China Morning Post on Monday that confirmed Mr. Ling’s son had been killed in a car crash in March.
The car was a black Ferrrari, and Ling Gu, the son, was said to be driving. Two young women with him in the car — “one naked, one semi-naked,” the story said — were seriously injured. The story said one woman was a Uighur, the other a Tibetan.
After the crash, The Morning Post said, citing an unnamed mainland official, “an elaborate scheme was painstakingly stitched together to hide the real identity of the tragic young man in the crash. The name that eventually appeared on the death certificate of the driver was a fake.”
“People will ask how Ling Gu could have afforded a 5 million yuan luxury sports car in the first place,” the paper said, judging the Ferrari to be worth $788,000. “And it will only confirm the public belief that the children of senior officials have rich and decadent lifestyles beyond the wildest dreams of the people.”
A Morning Post columnist, Wang Xiangwei, added that Mr. Ling’s “soft landing” in his new position has “apparently angered many party elders and officials, who raised sharp questions over the elaborate attempt to cover up the accident, including the forging of a death certificate, and about how a young man in his 20s could afford such a Ferrari.”
The paper said the coverup was “reminiscent of the botched attempt to hide the murder of British businessman Neil Heywood.” The wife of the disgraced former party chief Bo Xilai was convicted of the Heywood murder last month and given a suspended death sentence.
The whole incident — the fancy car, the deadly crash, the high-level coverup — is not going down well with Chinese netizens on the lookout for cases of official corruption and the excesses of the wealthy and the well-connected.
A blogger from Xiamen named tufuwugan tweeted this message on Monday morning, and his post soon began to rocket around Sina Weibo, the Twitter-like service on the mainland: “It was an ordinary car crash, I wouldn’t have cared much about it, but you all got nervous, deleting posts everywhere — only then did I start getting suspicious about the real story. You all keep using stupid tactics, only to prove that the rumors aren’t false!”
As we reported on Rendezvous the day after the crash, Chinese microbloggers quickly seized on the story of the deadly wreck. The intrigue only grew when the Beijing police refused to comment about the accident.
A story the following morning in the Global Times, a newspaper affiliated with the party, said “almost all online information’’ about the crash had been deleted overnight, including “all microblog posts which mentioned the accident, and blocked online searches of the word ‘Ferrari.’ ”
“It was a gag order at the highest level,” said a senior Beijing state media source, according to the Morning Post. “I have never seen any car accident that deserves an order of this level.”
On Monday, it appeared a coverup was continuing: Sina Weibo was blocking all searches of “Ling Jihua,” “Ling Jihua son” and “Ferrari crash.”
How Chinese officials covered-up tale of playboy, his Ferrari and dead semi-naked women
A sordid tragedy involving a 20-something playboy, two scantily-clad women and a two-seater Ferrari has once again exposed the Communist Party’s challenges in hiding its dirty laundry in the information age.
The black Ferrari Spider 458, reportedly bought for close to $1 million, was travelling so fast along Beijing’s North Fourth Ring Road that it split in two when it smashed into the Baofusi bridge, about 4am on Sunday, March 20.
A photograph of the tangled, smouldering engine block – resting far from the main car body – was published in the Beijing Evening News and immediately spread across the internet.
The paper reported that the driver was killed and the two female passengers seriously injured. What might have been a tale of unbridled wealth and power quickly became one of political intrigue when propaganda authorities blocked relevant search terms including “Ferrari”, and refused to confirm the name of the driver.
Yesterday, after simmering for 5 months without official clarification, the story landed for the first time on the front page of a mainstream newspaper, just weeks before a delicate once-in-a-decade leadership transition.
The South China Morning Post reported the driver was Ling Gu, the son of President Hu Jintao’s most trusted and notorious political fixer, Ling Jihua.
It said the semi-naked passengers were ethnic Tibetan and Uighur students from Beijing’s Minzu University, one of whom was now paralysed.
Professor Miao Di, of China Communications University, said those in power were not helping themselves by covering up scandals that could be exposed by netizens and an increasingly energetic mainstream media.
“But it seems the Chinese Communist Party hasn’t thought of any better ideas, he said.
The Post reported the Ferrari story after Mr Ling was shifted on Saturday from running the party’s all-important General Office to running the United Front Department, a move which seems to have scuppered his chances for promotion into the Politburo Standing Committee. “Many believe the two issues are related,” said Zhou Zhixing, a well-connected intellectual who runs the Gongshi website.
Mr Ling will be replaced by the former party chief of Guizhou province, Li Zhanshu, who has ties to Mr Hu and his anointed successor, Xi Jinping.
Beyond the implicit evidence of rampant corruption and indiscipline, the Post painted a picture of internecine factional struggle. It reported a cover-up and possible frame-up by allies of Mr Hu as well as political calculations by his factional nemesis and predecessor, Jiang Zemin.
It said investigators changed the driver’s name on Mr Ling’s death certificate to “Jia”, which had earlier led to speculation that he was the son of Mr Jiang’s ally, the fourth-ranked Jia Qinglin. It said Mr Jia was furious and handed a report to Mr Jiang, his patron, who sat on it for three months before using it to advantage.
Some versions of the story involve even greater allegations of debauchery inside the car and political sabotage and thuggery beyond it.
Professor Miao said the absence of political transparency would tempt China’s political elite to use old and new media channels to advance personal and factional interests. “As politicians, I think they would be using any means possible,” he said, without commenting specifically on coverage of the Ferrari incident.
The objectivity of the Post itself has come into question because of controversial editorial decisions and the editor and owner’s ties to Communist Party organisations.
But many Chinese political watchers and several Western diplomats became convinced Mr Ling’s son was the driver in the weeks after it was first reported by an overseas website in June.
The incident is another dent in the party’s efforts to present a united image ahead of the 18th Party Congress, following the downfall of the Politburo member Bo Xilai. Just days before the Ferrari crash, Mr Bo was toppled after his police chief claimed to American diplomats that he had attempted to cover up his wife’s murder of an English friend, Neil Heywood.
Ms Gu was last month convicted of murder while Mr Bo awaits a verdict on unspecified discipline violations.