How son’s death in a high-speed car crash led to powerful Chinese official’s fall from grace
Ling Jihua, former aide to Hu Jintao, was tipped as one of China's future leaders until claims surfaced of a cover-up over son's fatal road crash
His name means "planning", but being investigated for alleged corruption was likely the last thing one-time Communist Party stalwart administrator Ling Jihua had on his to-do list.
As the personal aide to former president Hu Jintao, Ling was in the constellation of rising stars groomed as one of the sixth generation of leaders to succeed President Xi Jinping's administration in a decade.
Yet on March 19, 2012, his world came crashing down. That fateful night a 5million yuan (HK$6.3 million) speeding Ferrari sports car rammed into a wall on Beijing's North Fourth Ring Road, then crushed a railing on the other side of the road. Two young women, one naked and the other semi-naked, were seriously injured. The driver, a young man, half naked, died instantly. He was Ling's son, Ling Gu.
The accident set in motion events that would lead to Ling Jihua's fall from grace.
After months of trying to avoid being caught in the dragnet - including penning a piece heaping praise on President Xi Jinping as recently as last week - the Central Commission for Discipline Inspection said in a brief statement late on Monday that 58-year-old Ling had been placed under investigation.
His fall, unlike his rise, was slow, steady, but sure. Before November 2011, Ling was chief of the secretive General Office of the Communist Party's Central Committee and Hu's personal secretary. It made him one of China's most powerful, yet probably least well-known, officials.
Ling tended to the affairs of Beijing's highest leaders, from seeing to mundane matters such as their doctor's appointments to overseeing their sensitive paperwork and personal security.
His troubles began allegedly when he asked that the inquiry into his son's accident be handled by the Central Guard Bureau - the office he oversaw that was responsible for the security of top party leaders - not the police. The request smacked of a cover-up.
Intriguingly, a few days after the accident, mainland media reports went quiet about the incident. The South China Morning Post broke the story, naming Ling Gu, six months later.
It later also emerged that Ling enlisted the help of the former oil company chief Jiang Jiemin.
Jiang, then chairman of the state-run China National Petroleum Corporation, paid hefty compensation to the families of the two female victims in the crash, a Tibetan and a Uygur, to stop details being made public.
The families of the two young women, both university students, each pocketed tens of millions of yuan, sources said, which was transferred to their banks from China National Petroleum.
Yet the two large transfers eventually led to an anti-corruption inquiry focusing on Jiang; the trail has now led to Ling.
The fallout from the crash put paid to Ling's hopes of promotion ahead of the 18th Party Congress in the autumn of 2012 as Xi took power as the chief of the Communist Party. Ling had been seen as a likely future member of the Politburo, even as a contender for the elite Standing Committee, the Communist Party's top decision-making body. The promise of those appointments evaporated overnight.
Instead, he was moved sideways, elected as minister of the United Front Work Department, a largely symbolic post, and as vice-chairman of the political advisory body the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference.
He is believed to be the only former director of the party's General Office not to be elected to the Politburo, or made one of the alternate members who take their posts in the second half of the leadership's term of office.
At that time, however, political analysts concluded that Ling appeared to have emerged from the inquiries and controversy relatively unscathed.
He moved in December 2012 to take up his appointment as minister. "He doesn't take part much in decision-making at the United Front Work Department," a source said.
A check on the department's website found Ling's name cited in 56 official reports. Most were single mentions about him attending meetings.
His main role was to maintain good relations between the party and non-communist organisations, including ethnic minority groups and organisations in Taiwan.
He had all but been sidelined, from being in the powerful General Office to doing public relations. "The General Office is the pivot of the central leadership," said a source close to the office.
"Anything people want seen by leaders has to pass that office first and any policy to be conveyed has to pass them, too. And Ling was a meddlesome man."
The source recalled an incident during his tenure at the office when Beijing officials had trouble relocating residents near Zhongnanhai to build apartments for cadres. When Ling found out, he stepped in and held a meeting to thrash things out. "He didn't have to do that," the source said. "But because of him, the relocations went smoothly."
Ling was widely known as a workaholic while he was chief of the General Office.
As a boy, he showed an unusual thirst for knowledge and a determination to succeed. As a young man working in a local printing factory, who soon had more responsibilities in local government in his native Pinglu county, he worked hard and refused to use heating in winter, a retired official told the Post. "He told us the chill kept him sober, so he could absorb more knowledge," the former official said.
One of four sons of a revolutionary father, he always appeared eager to obey commands and took to instructions well. "He knew how to please the leaders and could always fulfil their needs," the retired official said.
As the president's aide, Ling lived up to his name as he was the man who made certain every event and trip went exactly as prepared and planned.
"Jihua" translates roughly as "planning" - one of the pillars of communist ideology; Ling's father, a doctor named Linghu Ye, who joined the Communist Party at its base at Yanan in the late 1930s, named each of his children after the five pillars of the party's philosophy. Ling's three brothers were named Luxian, meaning "direction"; Zhengce "policy") and Wancheng ("completion"). His elder sister was Fangzhen ("guideline").
Ling was first admitted to the Communist Youth League committee for Pinglu county aged 19 in 1973. Within four years he had worked his way up into the propaganda department of the league's central committee.
This promotion changed his fortunes, as the youth league soon came under the leadership of an up-and-coming cadre, Hu Jintao. The league and its young officials went on to form a key base of support for the future president and general secretary.
The first clue that Ling was destined for the upper echelons of power came in December 1995, when Hu - then head of the Central Secretariat - asked him to serve as his personal assistant. Officially, Ling was appointed head of the General Office's research office, preparing reports and speeches for members of the powerful Standing Committee.
Hu kept Ling close thereafter. In 1999, after Hu's rise to vice-president, he took Ling with him to lead his office.
Later that year, Ling was appointed as the youngest deputy chief of the General Office, the powerful agency that he led until last week.
Ling's peers recall Ling liked to release stress playing late-night table tennis after a long day at work - then return to his desk, until midnight.
"We thought 'that's the end of a long day', but then he went back and worked another few hours," a subordinate said.
Former president Hu, like many party officials of his generation, was also an avid table tennis player. Ling was supposed to be one of his favourite partners.
Now under investigation, Ling Jihua will be paddling alone.
'Shanxi Gang' targeted
The former boss of China's largest aluminum producer has become the latest figure with close ties to Shanxi province brought down by the Communist Party's anti-graft watchdog.
The party's discipline commission said yesterday it had wrapped up its investigation into Sun Zhaoxue, a Shanxi native and former general manager of Aluminum Corporation of China. He was expelled from the party for taking bribes and adultery, and his case handed over to prosecutors.
Sun was part of the so-called "Shanxi Gang", whose key members have been targeted one after another in the national graft crackdown. They include Ling Jihua , an ex-top aide to former president Hu Jintao , and his brother, Ling Zhengce, who was vice-chairman of the province's political advisory body.
Last week, Jiang Wei, vice-president of China Resources (Holdings), was put in to detention for at least a month as part of an investigation that encompassed the company's controversial acquisition of a Shanxi coal mining firm four years ago. Song Lin, the former chairman of the company, was investigated for graft in April.
Wang Hongkun, the executive director of China Resources Land, and Wu Ding, chief executive of China Resources Capital Holdings, were also detained immediately after Song was placed under investigation. The director of the Shanxi Coal Industry Bureau, Wu Yongping, was detained earlier by the province's anti-graft agency for investigation.
In August, the party's anti-graft agency said it was investigating Bai Yun, a member of the Shanxi provincial government standing committee and director of its United Front Work Department, and Ren Runhou , provincial vice-governor.
In July, Xie Kemin, former deputy commissioner of Shanxi's discipline inspection commission, was expelled from the party and fired for graft. Inquiries into another Shanxi ex-vice-governor, Du Shanxue, and Ling Zhengce, ex-vice-chairman of the province's political advisory body, were announced in June.
Rounding off the list of suspects are party committee secretary general Nie Chunyu, and Chen Chuanping, secretary of the Taiyuan city committee. Shen Weichen, 57, former party secretary and executive vice-president of the China Association for Science and Technology, was expelled this week, along with Jin Daoming, ex-deputy director of the Shanxi people's congress standing committee.