Car crash scandal complicates leadership transition

Emerging details of Beijing car crash in March have served to complicate an already uncertain picture after Bo Xilai's downfall

PUBLISHED : Monday, 03 September, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 03 October, 2012, 3:24pm

As a popular Chinese idiom goes, misfortune never comes alone. On March 15, the Communist Party leadership sacked Bo Xilai from his position as party chief of Chongqing, bringing to the public's attention one of the biggest political crises to beset the party in a decade.

Three days later, an accident in Beijing, involving a Ferrari, the son of one of the mainland's most powerful officials and two young, ethnic-minority girls, served as a double whammy to the party's leadership.

The political ramifications from the twin scandals have added intrigue and additional complications to the party's once-in-a-decade leadership reshuffle scheduled for the 18th Party Congress. The opening date of the congress hasn't been officially announced, but analysts expect it to start in the second half of next month.

While the Bo scandal has been extensively reported on since March, details only recently began to emerge in the crash of a black Ferrari that killed Ling Gu, the son of Ling Jihua, a key aide of President Hu Jintao, and injured two girls. Details of the accident are in today's South China Morning Post.

Despite strong reactions from within the party, Chinese leaders seem to have decided to sweep the crash under the carpet, presumably because the party can't afford another major scandal made public so close to the leadership transition.

Saturday's announcement that Ling Jihua had been appointed to head the United Front Work Department served as a strong indication that Hu wants to engineer a "soft landing" for his protégé, but it also means that the prospects of Ling securing a seat on the Politburo have dimmed greatly.

Until Saturday, Ling was the head of the General Office of the Communist Party - equivalent to the job of chief of staff to the American president. He had complete control of access to Hu's office and set his agenda. Before the crash, he was even considered a strong candidate to the join the all-powerful Politburo Standing Committee.

Instead, Ling could be named a deputy chairman of the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference, a largely ceremonial post but one which would entitle him to be treated as a national leader, according to mainland political hierarchy.

But Ling's "soft landing" 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.

Drama surrounding the incident is unlikely to end soon, as the scandal looks set to put Hu's camp on the defensive at a critical juncture when party leaders are fighting among each other while trying to find their own supporters to fill Politburo positions.

Several mainland sources said Hu had seen his political will and bargaining power sapped in light of the scandals, and this had allowed former president Jiang Zemin to wield more influence in deciding the new leadership line-up.

As previously mentioned in this column, it is now unlikely that Hu will follow Jiang's example by staying on as chairman of the Central Military Commission for two more years after retiring as party chief next month and president in March.

There has been speculation that Hu wanted his protégé, Vice-Premier Li Keqiang, who looks set to become the new premier next year, to be made a vice-chairman of the military commission at the 18th congress. This would help maintain Hu's influence following his full retirement.

But several mainland sources said that this was unlikely to happen, as it could set a dangerous precedent of potentially allowing the armed forces to play a significant role in the day-to-day governing of the country's economic and social development.