The political downfall of a former aide to Hu Jintao was finally confirmed some two years after a speeding Ferrari first crashed along a Beijing street in 2012. In a brief statement released last week, the Central Committee for Discipline Inspection (CCDI) of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) announced that Ling Jihua, vice-chairman of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference, had been indicted for “serious discipline violations.” Following the impeachments of Zhou Yongkang and Xu Caihou, Ling was the third high-profile politician to be ensnared in China’s anti-graft movement in 2014.
Ling’s fall from grace is particularly stark, considering that his political star was on the rise in the lead-up to the 18th Party Congress, where he had been primed for a seat on the 25-member Politburo. As a key member of Hu Jintao’s inner circle, Ling’s access to China’s former top leader meant that he had been favored to join the ranks of the country’s most powerful politicians. Following the car crash involving his son and two female passengers, however, Ling subsequently failed to make the cut and was also stripped of his post as director of the influential General Office of the CCP’s Central Committee.
While Ling had largely stayed out of the political limelight in the past two years, it became clear earlier in the year that the CCP had not forgotten his previous indiscretions, when the party’s anti-corruption agency began initiating proceedings against Ling Zhengce and Ling Wancheng. The two – respectively a provincial official of Shanxi, and a businessman – are brothers of Ling Jihua. In the same manner in which other senior party officials such as Zhou Yongkang had been toppled, the CCDI steadily worked its way towards Ling – its intended target and big “tiger” – by first taking out the small “flies” associated with him.
A Political Storm Two Years in the Making
What then, are the regulations Hu Jintao’s former “political fixer” had supposedly contravened? According to media sources, Ling had ordered the unauthorized use of state security forces to cover up the details of his son’s accident. Possibly motivated by the rivalry between Hu’s Communist Youth League (CYL) – of which Ling was a representative figure – and Jiang Zemin’s followers, Ling also allegedly misled Hu and the rest of the party leadership regarding the driver’s identity by passing his son off as the offspring of a member of Jiang’s faction in order to discredit his political rivals.
At the same time, other China watchers have also contended that Ling Jihua had made a pact with Zhou Yongkang for the latter’s help in covering up his son’s death to avert any political fallout. Accordingly, Ling would return Zhou’s favor by letting him off the hook for supporting the deposed former Chongqing party chief Bo Xilai. Since his political demise was made official last week, sources close to the party have also revealed that Ling had collaborated with Bo from as early as 2006 to undermine their political adversaries. Ling’s alleged association with the gang seen as challengers to Xi Jinping’s political career meant that it was only a matter of time before the current Chinese leader took action.
Fourth ‘Big Tiger’ Since Bo Xilai
That it has taken this long for Xi to close in on Ling can be explained by the more pressing need of purging the Chinese public security apparatus and China’s military of the influence of their previous officeholders. Towards that end, it was crucial that Xi focused his energies on reining in the Jiang loyalists – Zhou Yongkang and Xu Caihou – before opening up a new front against the CYL. Having systematically rooted out Zhou’s men within the state security bureaucracy in addition to consolidating his own status in the Central Military Commission (CMC), Xi has wasted no time in widening the anti-corruption campaign to include Hu’s protégé.
In a country in which rent-seeking and abuses of power are endemic, it is not improbable that corruption may be considered a lesser evil than challenging those in power. It is thus more than likely that Ling’s removal had more to do with his political failings than anything else. Indeed, Ling’s putative decision to consort with Zhou Yongkang and Bo Xilai has even moved certain Chinese media outlets to describe the three and Xu Caihou as China’s new “Gang of Four.” While speculation regarding the four having harbored intentions to remove Xi midway through his first term remains nothing more than fanciful musing, the roundup of Ling is nevertheless symbolic and marks a watershed in the ongoing anti-corruption campaign.
What Next for Xi Jinping and China?
To be sure, Xi Jinping’s fight against corruption has yielded neither any high-ranking official from Fujian and Zhejiang – provinces in which Xi had previously served – nor anyone from his “princelings” faction. Nevertheless, whether the campaign seeks to arrest malfeasance or is simply an excuse to root out political foes, Xi has done his party’s legitimacy no harm. Not unlike the still unraveling details from the Ferrari crash from two years ago, it may be a while yet before the actual motives behind the recent developments can fully emerge. While the CCP may never reveal the real reasons behind Ling Jihua’s downfall, two things are clear.
First, the removal of Hu Jintao’s former right-hand man reaffirms the fact that Xi Jinping has more or less removed the final vestiges of influence his predecessor had retained. Similarly, the political shortcomings of Jiang Zemin’s clique also gives Xi an additional bargaining chip. This breaks the trend in contemporary Chinese politics in which party elders had continued to hold sway despite leaving office. Jiang undermined Hu’s authority just as he himself had been constrained by Deng Xiaoping. Clearly, Xi does not want to be held back from realizing his Chinese Dream. Looking ahead, he is also well placed to anoint his own successor.
Second, Xi is also unencumbered by the political gridlock caused by factional conflicts that marked the previous administration. With this initial phase of his anti-corruption campaign drawing to a close, it is clear that Xi’s clout as well as that of his fellow “princelings” has grown at the expense of the coteries under Jiang and Hu. As it becomes increasingly likely that Xi will succeed in stamping his authority on the entire party machinery, he also stands a better chance of reforming the country’s political system while restoring public faith in the CCP’s rule. As his countrymen’s new helmsman, the direction in which Xi Jinping steers China towards will be keenly watched.
James Char is a Research Analyst with the China Programme at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS), Nanyang Technological University (NTU).