On Saturday, the Communist Party announced that Ling Jihua, the principal aide to leader Hu Jintao, had relinquished his post as head of the General Office of the Central Committee and assumed the job as chief of the Central Committee’s United Front Work Department. The move is a demotion for the high-flyer, who this year had a shot at elevation to the Politburo Standing Committee, the apex of political power in China.
Ling’s career troubles began immediately after the crash of a black Ferrari into a wall on Beijing’s Fourth Ring Road in the early morning of March 18th. Due to a gag order issued by the party, few details of the incident are known for sure, but it appears that Ling’s son, half-naked at the time, was killed. Two women riding in the two-seat car were severely injured, one paralyzed. One was found without any clothes, and the other was only half dressed. There is speculation that the trio was involved in a sex game at the time of the fatal crash.
According to Hong Kong’s South China Morning Post, authorities issued a death certificate in the name of “Jia” for Ling Gu, Ling Jihua’s son. The choice of that pseudonym looks like a subtle act of defiance—“Jia” in Mandarin sounds the same as the character for “fake.”
The stratagem, however, angered Jia Qinglin, the 4th-ranked member of the Standing Committee. Jia was reportedly furious that his name was dragged into the scandal—first reports said the driver of the speeding vehicle was Jia’s illegitimate son—and so he demanded an investigation. His mentor, Jiang Zemin, the former Communist Party supremo, then seized the opportunity to wound his successor, Hu Jintao. Jiang, Hu’s long-time adversary, then forced Ling’s demotion after months of intense infighting.
The car accident occurred just three days after the party stripped Bo Xilai, once China’s most charismatic and openly ambitious politician, of his posts after explosive allegations surfaced regarding his wife’s involvement in the poisoning of a foreign businessman. Bo’s removal from power convinced many China watchers that the country’s leaders had put the matter behind them. Whether or not the leaders had in fact solved their differences over Comrade Bo, the March 18th crash restarted intense factional infighting. It evidently took months for Hu Jintao, Jiang Zemin, and their allies to decide Ling’s fate and find a successor for his crucial post.
The Communist Party is fragile. It no longer has a strongman like Mao Zedong or Deng Xiaoping to enforce discipline, and no figure has the ability to contain increasingly disruptive infighting. At this moment, senior party officials are looking for excuses—such as spectacular car crashes—to undermine each other.
Each leader of the People’s Republic has been weaker than his predecessor. Many think this progression from one-man to collective rule is progress, and in many ways it is. Nonetheless, almost no authoritarian regime has survived for long without a bigger-than-life figure. China’s officials are no longer grand. They are bland and uninspiring, and almost none of the current crop of leaders resonates with the Chinese people.
The next group does not look appreciably better. This year, the so-called Fourth Generation leaders are supposed to give way to the Fifth. The jockeying before the planned transition has heightened tensions inside the party, and the institution’s fragility is especially evident when even extraneous incidents cause major tremors.
We now know events can rock the Communist Party—just when it needs unity the most.
Photo Credit: 刻意