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World & Nation

Former top Chinese official indicted on corruption charges

Ling Jihua
Ling Jihua, once an aide to former Chinese president Hu Jintao, attends the closing of the People’s Conference in Beijing in March 2013.
(How Hwee Young / European Pressphoto Agency)

China has formally indicted Ling Jihua, one of the country’s most powerful men until a Ferrari crash derailed his career in 2012, on corruption and state-secrets charges, state media reported Friday. 

Ling, a top aide to former Chinese president Hu Jintao — a position similar to the White House chief of staff — was indicted on charges of “taking bribes, illegally obtaining state secrets, [and] abuse of power,” reported the New China News Agency, China’s official news service. His trial is to be in Tianjin, a metropolis of 15 million people a short drive from Beijing.

Ling “sought and received a substantial amount of money and assets,” said the news service. “He illegally obtained state secrets and abused his power, which severely damaged public assets and the interests of people and the state. The circumstances are especially wicked.” The report did not give a date for the trial, or offer further details concerning his alleged offenses.

Ling, 59, is one of the highest-ranking Communist Party officials to be caught up in President Xi Jinping’s anti-corruption drive, the most intense in China’s recent history. 

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“In the past three years, Xi has gotten credit as a successful and bold graft-buster,” said Willy Lam, a Chinese politics expert and adjunct professor at the Chinese University of Hong Kong. “So now he can use the Ling Jihua case to reaffirm his image as an incorruptible official, and also to scare his potential opponents.”

Ling’s fall from power was the stuff of tabloids: In the spring of 2012, his 23 year-old son crashed a Ferrari during a late-night joyriding session in Beijing, killing himself and seriously injuring two young women, one of them naked. Ling allegedly tried, and failed, to engineer a cover-up, and the ensuing scandal ruined his political career. 

For five years until 2012, Ling directed the Communist Party’s “general office,” an administrative body that gave him access to classified information on other top authorities. After the crash, he was demoted to head of the United Front Work Department, an agency that oversees ethnic minority affairs. Authorities placed him under investigation for “suspected serious disciplinary violation,” shorthand for corruption, in December 2014. 

In the summer of 2015, Ling’s younger brother, Ling Wancheng, defected to the United States, where he lived in a $2.5-million home in the Sacramento suburb of Loomis. He has since handed top-level Chinese government secrets to U.S. intelligence agencies, the Washington Free Beacon and the Financial Times reported in February, citing unnamed Washington officials. 

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China’s top anti-corruption agency has reportedly dispatched agents to the U.S. in an attempt to repatriate him. 

“Of course [Chinese state media] won’t mention his younger brother, but even before Ling Wancheng became big news, in Beijing’s political circles there was speculation that [Ling Jihua] had taken advantage of his position as Hu Jintao’s right-hand man to steal some so-called state secrets,” Lam said. “But as to what exactly those state secrets might have been, we’ll never find out, because the trial will be held in secret.”

Nicole Liu and Yingzhi Yang in the Times’ Beijing bureau contributed to this report. 

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