A powerful official of the ruling Chinese Communist Party, who is an ally of outgoing president Hu Jintao, has been sidelined after his son was identified as the driver in a fatal, but mysterious, crash of a Ferrari sports car, fueling speculation of a power struggle ahead of the Party transition later this year.
The Beijing crash in March appears to be a fresh embarrassment for the Party, which has replaced Ling Jihua, the head of the general office that oversees security for the country’s top leaders, with Li Zhanshu, a close ally of Vice-President Xi Jinping who is forecast to take over from Hu and as party head.
The Party's Central Committee appointed Li, 62, as director of its general office, replacing Ling Jihua, 56, who was given a far less powerful role as head of the Stalinist-era ideological body, the United Front Work Department, which handles relations with organizations and individuals outside the Party.
Beijing watchers expressed surprise over the swift changes announced on Saturday, saying they raise various questions and point to a power scramble in the Party.
“Within one day, Li Zhanshu has been promoted from deputy director to director of the general office. What's hidden behind this mysterious personnel change leaves vast space for speculations,” He Liangliang, a commentator with the Hong Kong-based Phoenix TV, told Radio Free Asia's Mandarin news service.
“There are some strange things that have happened to Ling Jihua. His son suddenly died in a car accident. We don’t know exactly what kind of role he had played in the Bo Xilai case,” he said.
Ling's demotion comes amid reports of his son's death in a car crash under circumstances that could prove highly embarrassing to a Party already rocked by the fall of former Chongqing Party chief Bo Xilai.
The powerful Bo was sacked in March and is currently under investigation for unspecified "disciplinary violations" while his wife Gu Kailai last month received a suspended death sentence for the murder of a British businessman in the biggest political scandal to rock the Party in two decades.
As director of the general work office, whose past directors include Premier Wen Jiabao and former Vice-President Zeng Qinghong, Ling had been tipped as a possible candidate for the all-powerful standing committee of the Party's Politburo.
In a report on Monday, Hong Kong's English-language South China Morning Post (SCMP) identified Ling’s son Ling Gu as the driver who was killed in a mysterious crash of a Ferrari in the middle of the night in Beijing in March.
All online information or comment about the crash, which prompted widespread speculation among Chinese netizens, was blocked on China's tightly controlled Internet.
Ling Gu was killed, while his two female companions, one Uyghur and one Tibetan, were injured, the SCMP reported.
One of the women was naked, while the other was "semi-naked," it said.
The paper cited an unnamed source as saying that officials implemented an elaborate cover-up to shield Ling Gu's identity, even faking the name on the driver's death certificate.
“People will ask how Ling Gu could have afforded a 5 million yuan (U.S. $788,000) luxury sports car in the first place,” the paper said in an editorial. "It will only confirm the public belief that the children of senior officials have rich and decadent lifestyles beyond the wildest dreams of the people."
Keyword searches for "Prince Ling," "Little Ling," and "car crash, car sex," were blocked on the popular microblogging service Sina Weibo on Monday, according to the China Digital Times, which monitors banned keywords.
A retired Party official told Reuters that the cover-up had been decided upon at the highest level.
"The central leadership decided that the scandal over the incident was too serious to allow Ling Jihua to be promoted, and Hu Jintao really couldn't resist," the agency quoted the official as saying.
One source and a journalist who once worked for a Party publication—both speaking on condition of anonymity —also confirmed to Reuters that Ling Gu had died in the crash. The source also confirmed that the driver's death certificate had been changed to disguise Ling Gu's identity.
Three young people were in the car at the time of the crash, the agency quoted further unnamed sources as saying.
Reported by He Ping for RFA’s Mandarin service. Translated and written in English by Luisetta Mudie and Ping Chen.