As 2014 winds to close, Xi Jinping’s anti-corruption drive managed to claim one more “tiger”: Ling Jihua, a top advisor to former President Hu Jintao. Ling served most recently as vice chairman of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference National Committee and the head of the United Front Work Department. Xinhua announced Monday that Ling had officially been placed under investigation for “suspected serious disciplinary violation.”
The investigation into Ling comes as no surprise. Ling’s fate was all but sealed back in March 2012, when his son Ling Gu was killed in a car crash. Ling Gu had been driving a Ferrari with two female passengers; all three were reported to be only half-dressed at the time of the crash. According to reports, Ling Jihua and his associates spent months trying to cover up the lurid details, as well as the fact that Ling Gu had been involved in the crash at all. As the New York Times reported in December 2012, Ling Jihua’s family scandal damaged then-President Hu Jintao’s negotiating position ahead of the 18th Party Congress, which decided China’s leaders for 2012-2017. Ling, previously considered an up-and-coming Party official due to his close relationship with Hu, was left out of the Politburo and effectively demoted.
Prior to March 2012, Ling was in prime political position. He had been a close confidante of then-President Hu since the 1980s, and was serving as head of the Central Committee’s General Office, roughly equivalent to a chief of staff. Ling was considered a front-runner for a position on the Politburo due to his status as a leader in Hu Jintao’s “Youth League” faction. Willy Lam of the Chinese University of Hong Kong, speaking to the Associated Press, drove home how important Ling’s ultimate fall is for Chinese politics:”It looks like the entire Youth League faction will be under threat, as Hu Jintao has not been able to do anything about it … Ling Jihua is the symbol of the Youth League.” Other prominent members of the Youth League include current Vice President Li Yuanchao and even Premier Li Keqiang (note, however, that The Diplomat’s Mu Chunshan recently debunked rumors that Li Keqiang is being sidelined by Xi Jinping).
Since 2012, political analysts have been keeping a close eye on Ling Jihua, viewing him as a test case for Xi Jinping’s anti-corruption campaign. Sure enough, the nets have slowly closed on Ling over the course of 2014. Just as in the case of Zhou Yongkang, another high-ranking “tiger,” investigators worked their way toward the major target by first going after his associates and allies. In Ling’s case, that meant targeting the “Shanxi gang,” a network of CCP officials with roots in the province. Ling Jihua was seen as a founding member. The writing was on the wall when two of Ling Jihua’s brothers, Ling Zhengce and Ling Wancheng, were placed under investigation, in June and October respectively.
As with the case of Zhou Yongkang, Xi Jinping and top anti-corruption official Wang Qishan were content to move forward slowly and cautiously in the investigation of Ling Jihua, building a strong case (and presumably gaining consensus from top leadership). In both cases, going after patronage networks both helped provide evidence against the main targets as well as removing political supporters.
The take-down of Ling Jihua ends a political saga that began in March 2012. Ling will likely face an official trial once the Party investigation concludes and his case is turned over to the legal system. If the Bo Xilai case is any precedent, more details about Ling’s alleged wrongdoings will emerge as his case moves closer to trial.