Beijing • China’s hopes for a smooth, once-a-decade political transition have been shaken by a lurid new scandal involving the death of a senior official’s son who crashed during what may have been sex games in a speeding Ferrari.
Details of the March accident in Beijing, which allegedly also injured two young women, have stayed under wraps in China but are leaking out via media in Hong Kong. The media blackout underscores official fears that the public will be outraged by another instance of excess and recklessness among China’s power elites.
The embarrassing new wrinkle follows the murder trial last month of a top leader’s wife who poisoned her British business associate last year. Both scandals have become bargaining chips in the jockeying for power ahead of a major leadership reshuffle this fall.
The South China Morning Post on Monday cited an unnamed official in Beijing as confirming that Ling Gu, the son of a loyal aide to President Hu Jintao, was the person killed in a March 18 Ferrari accident which initially garnered only minimal coverage in China’s state media.
The report said Ling was half-naked when the crash occurred and his two passengers were naked or half-dressed, suggesting they had been involved in some kind of high-speed sex game.
Several other news outlets later cited additional unnamed officials as corroborating details. However, efforts to get officials to publicly confirm the report were unsuccessful. Faxed requests for information to the Public Security Bureau and China’s Cabinet were not immediately answered.
Prestigious Peking University, where Ling was a student, would not comment, but political science professor Yang Chaohui said the young man has not been seen there since March.
“We have discussed this matter in class. I personally am quite concerned about this matter and according to various signs, I think we can confirm that his death is a true fact,” Yang said.
The Post’s story came just days after the Chinese government announced Ling Gu’s father had been transferred to a new position, a move that analysts say ended his ambitions for a post in the upper ranks of the top leadership. Observers said the shift appeared linked to his son’s scandalous death.
On Saturday, Ling Jihua was named as the new head of the United Front Work Department and his old job as director of the general office of the Communist Party’s central committee was given to Li Zhanshu — thought to be a close ally of Xi Jinping, the man tapped to the China’s next president.
As head of the executive office, Li will be responsible for personnel arrangements for the party’s top leaders. A comparable position in U.S. politics is the president’s chief of staff.
The appointment of Li ahead of a party congress, which should happen in the coming weeks or months, shows Xi is already gaining power. Such personnel changes usually occur during or after the party congress.
China politics expert Bo Zhiyue of the National University of Singapore called the personnel change “a very important signal that a power transition is taking place.”
In Communist Party politics, the outgoing leader — who has built a support base while in office — typically attempts to retain power after leaving office, a check on the new administration.
Bo said he thought the shift was being accelerated, creating an arrangement “more in favor of the new leadership than the old one.”
Joseph Cheng, a professor political science at the City University of Hong Kong, said that although Ling’s new post was not a “serious demotion,” it clearly removes him from the center of power.
China’s political process is opaque, with jockeying for power happening behind closed doors, so it’s difficult to say how big a role the Ferrari crash had in sidelining Ling though most analysts agree it played a part.
“This Ferrari accident certainly caused (Ling’s) stepping down,” Cheng said. “This means that instead of going further up, he has to go to the second line.”
Some feel though that the scandal could be limited to Ling himself and has not significantly eroded Hu’s power or tarnished his reputation.
Yang Dali, a political science professor at the University of Chicago, said Ling’s departure reflects well on Hu by showing he is “very scrupulous in disciplining his own people” and “willing to penalize his own underlings.”
Earlier this year, another top leader, Bo Xilai was ousted as the party chief of the megacity of Chongqing after his wife was declared a suspect in the murder of a British citizen.
Although Bo was a member of the party’s 25-member Politburo, which is just below the nine-member Standing Committee in power, he had alienated other leaders with a high-profile crackdown on corruption that even by China’s standards trampled on civil liberties. Many observers believe Bo’s wife’s criminal case was used by his opponents as an opportunity to purge him.
Regardless of the resulting power shifts, it’s clear that the government is very anxious about how the public will respond to another case of elites behaving badly and has imposed a strict ban on news and Internet posts related to the Ferrari crash. Such incidents have increasingly sparked public outrage in China.
“There’s no doubt the authorities have been very concerned about the revolt, the backlash against the flaunting of privileges, whether its cars or expensive watches, those trappings of power and corruption,” said Yang.
He said authorities are very careful to control the spread of such information so it “doesn’t stimulate more public anger against the elites.”
Cheng noted that few Chinese know about the Ferrari accident and that, if they did, they might see at as too removed from their lives to worry about.
“If there’s a Ferrari (crash) case with naked girls in Beijing, well, this is juicy stuff. You get cynical, you feel resentment but you don’t do much. You don’t protest because it’s too far away.”