China Power

The Downfall of Ling Jihua and the New Norm of Chinese Politics

Ling Jihua’s fall indicates the new normal in Chinese politics: No one is safe.

The Downfall of Ling Jihua and the New Norm of Chinese Politics
Credit: Xi Jinping image from Kaliva / Shutterstock

Only seven days earlier, on December 15, 2014, Ling Jihua, vice chairman of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference and director of the Central United Front Department of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), had just published an article in the mouthpiece of the CCP, Qiushi (Seeking Truth), pledging his loyalty to President Xi Jinping. In a short article of 4,231 words, Ling mentioned Xi’s name 19 times. According to the old norm of Chinese politics, this is a clear indication that Ling, a member of the “Youth League” Clique who served as the head of the General Office of Former President Hu Jintao for 13 years, was switching his loyalty to the new boss and that he had already engineered a “soft-landing,” in spite of corruption scandals involving his family members. Yet on December 22, Ling was declared a suspect of violations of party discipline and was placed under investigation.

The old norm of Chinese politics is that a politician would be considered safe if he (or she) has appeared in a political function or published an article in a major official outlet or has been present along with the paramount leader. But this old norm no longer works under the leadership of Xi Jinping. Xu Caihou, former vice chairman of the Central Military Commission and Politburo member, appeared along with Xi Jinping on a major function on January 20, 2014. But less than two months later, on March 15, he was placed under investigation for corruption charges. Three months later, on June 30, he was dispelled from the party and sent to the judicial system for legal charges. Zhou Yongkang, former Politburo Standing Committee member in charge of security apparatus and law enforcement institutions in China, visited Suzhou High School on April 29, 2013 and China University of Petroleum on October 1, 2013. Yet two months later, he was under investigation. Now Ling has fallen into the same trap.

The new norm of Chinese politics is no rules. It does not matter whether one is from Jiang Zemin’s camp (such as Xu Caihou and Zhou Yongkang) or from Hu Jintao’s camp (such as Ling Jihua). Nor does it matter whether these individuals are willing to be loyal subjects of the new emperor. No one is exempt from punishment.

This new norm is good for Xi Jinping and Wang Qishan to gain popularity as credible corruption busters. But it may also have unforeseen backlashes. In a political environment where no one is safe and there are no clear rules to follow, someone may become desperate.

Professor BO Zhiyue, a leading authority on Chinese elite politics in the world, will take up an appointment in January 2015 as Director of the New Zealand Contemporary China Research Centre (NZCCRC) and Professor of Political Science at Victoria University of Wellington. The only nation-wide research center on contemporary China in the world, NZCCRC aims to be a global leader in knowledge generation and knowledge sharing on political, economic, and social life of contemporary China among tertiary institutions, business sector, and policy community for the benefit of New Zealand. Based in Victoria University of Wellington, the Centre has seven member universities: Victoria University of Wellington, the University of Auckland, Auckland University of Technology, the University of Canterbury, the University of Otago, the University of Waikato, and Lincoln University.