BEIJING — Before dawn on March 18, a black Ferrari slammed into a concrete barrier in Beijing, killing the young male driver, badly injuring two young women and setting off yet another episode in the soap opera that has become Chinese politics.
At the time, coverage of the fiery crash was quickly scrubbed from the media and microblogs, the identity of the driver merely the subject of rumor.
Now, Chinese-language media outside the mainland are reporting that he was the son of Ling Jihua, until recently head of the Communist Party’s general office of the central committee — in effect, chief of staff for President Hu Jintao.
One of Hu’s closest associates for two decades, Ling was demoted over the weekend in what might be fallout from the crash. Ordinarily, the loss of a son would engender sympathy not censure, but the cost of the 458 Spider — reportedly worth about $700,000 — suggested a family with more disposable income than is befitting a public servant in a Communist country.
Moreover, a report Monday in the South China Morning Post identifying the driver as Ling Gu, believed to be in his 20s, said the young man was half-naked and one of the women completely naked, suggesting there was sexual activity in the car before the 4 a.m. crash.
The injured women were reported by the newspaper to be students at the Central University of Minorities, one a Tibetan and the other a Uighur.
Jin Zhong, a veteran political analyst based in Hong Kong, believes the South China Morning Post — whose editor has ties to the Communist Party — was given permission at the highest levels in Beijing to print the story about the car crash.
“It signals that the transition is well underway and that Hu Jintao’s power base is collapsing very quickly,” said Jin. He noted that Ling had been Hu’s closest adviser for many years, the “equivalent of chief of staff of the White House.”
After two five-year terms, Hu is due to be replaced as secretary-general of the Communist Party at the upcoming 18th party congress, at which Vice President Xi Jinping is to be named as successor.
Although it would be customary for Xi to name his own chief of staff, it was expected that Ling would move to a key position, perhaps on the nine-member Standing Committee.
The Chinese State Press had announced late Saturday that Ling was being transferred to a largely symbolic job with Communist Party’s United Front work department.
Ling’s removal is reminiscent of the undignified spectacle surrounding Bo Xilai, the former Chongqing party secretary whose wife was convicted last month of murdering British businessman Neil Heywood. Ling and Bo were reported to be rivals, both contending for one of the standing committee seats.
As Hu’s chief of staff, Ling was also the point man for the party in handling the scandal that erupted over the murder accusations, which were first made public when Chongqing’s police chief, Wang Lijun, sought refuge in a U.S. consulate.
Bo was removed as Chongqing party secretary March 15, just three days before the car crash.
Within hours of the accident, photographs of the wreckage circulated widely on Chinese microblog sites before being removed by censors. Even the word “Ferrari” was banned — along with terms such as “car sex” and “car crash.”
“It was a gag order at the highest level. I have never seen any car accident that deserves an order of this level,” the South China Morning Post quoted a media source saying about the crash.
Some political analysts are interpreting Ling’s removal as a possible victory for Bo Xilai and his allies. Bo has been in detention since mid-March, but he has not been charged with a crime.
“This is all very strange. I don’t think any of us understand what’s happening to Bo,” said Jin.
Bo had also faced criticism for his family’s lavish lifestyle. His own son, Bo Guagua, who graduated from Oxford and Harvard, has been accused of driving luxury sports cars as well.
— Barbara Demick