How a Ferrari Crash May Have Unsettled China’s Leadership Transition

There is still much that is unknown about the March car crash, but it seems to have caused some serious political drama

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Andy Wong / AP

Ling Jihua, an ally of Chinese President Hu Jintao, second from left, looks on as Hu signs a document after attending the closing ceremony of the National People's Congress in Beijing, on March 14, 2010

During a Beijing spring filled with salacious political gossip about the downfall of senior government official Bo Xilai, the March 18 crash of a Ferrari on the outskirts of the city was just one more shocking episode in this cloistered capital. As the rumor mill in Beijing worked overtime, I heard scandalous but totally unconfirmed whispers from Chinese journalists employed at government-run publications and other well-sourced insiders. The driver of the black Italian sports car was the son of a high-ranking government official, they alleged. There were two young women in the car. Astonishingly, the ladies were not members of China’s Han-ethnic majority, but Tibetans. One (or more) of the car’s occupants had perished in the crash.

Each tantalizing, unprovable detail prompted further questions. How had the son of a Communist Party official, whose salary is relatively meager, managed to acquire a Ferrari? Tibetans have been so despondent over Communist control over their land that dozens of local youngsters have self-immolated in recent months, sparking a massive security crackdown by the Chinese government. So what were members of this oft oppressed minority doing in a vehicle supposedly driven by a party scion?

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There is still much that is unknown about the March car crash. But months later, the political fallout from the possibly fatal accident appears to be this: Ling Jihua, formerly President Hu Jintao’s political lieutenant and the purported father of the young male driver in question, has been transferred to a lesser position as the head of a department dealing with China’s relations with various nonparty and overseas organizations.

The job change, which was announced over the weekend, added fresh fuel to rampant conjecture on how the country’s upcoming leadership transition will play out. Already, what was supposed to be a choreographed, once-a-decade exercise was thrown off-script by Bo’s arrest and the suspended death sentence given to his wife for murdering a British businessman last year. Now, the handover from President Hu to his presumptive successor Xi Jinping has been further shaken. Analysts believe the pair has spent the past few months jockeying to place men loyal to them in key leadership posts. Ling’s replacement as the head of the blandly named (but very important) General Office of the Chinese Communist Party’s Central Committee is Li Zhanshu, a man seen by some as an ally of Xi.

The Hong Kong–based South China Morning Post, which on Monday named Ling as the father of the Ferrari driver, reported that one of the women in the car was Tibetan (as I had been told earlier) but said the other was Uighur, a member of another restive minority group, in China’s northwest. Another source, who claims to know a relative of one of the young women, has said the girl’s family is a privileged Tibetan one who profited from government connections. Tibetan discontent with the Han has grown with an influx of Han migrants into Tibet and a sense that locals aren’t able to share in the wealth generated from natural-resource investments. However, a portion of the Tibetan community has grown rich from these business deals. The South China Morning Post said both women were students at Minzu University in Beijing, which educates members of China’s ethnic minorities. (The other source was unable to confirm this fact and maintains that both were Tibetans.)

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Rumors that Ling’s son was involved in the March wreck emerged quickly on exile-Chinese websites, which also played a key role in first airing some of the juiciest details of the Bo scandal. In early June, Boxun, a website that is run by a Chinese émigré in the U.S., reported that the trio in the car, one of whom it identified as Ling’s son, were engaged in sex games before the wreck. Boxun said that high-level officials, including someone from Ling’s General Office, were rapidly dispatched to the crash site.

Intriguingly, a day after the accident, the Beijing-based Global Times, a populist newspaper with links to the Communist Party, initially reported on the crash even as online speculation quickly led China’s censors to block even the word Ferrari from local Web searches. The Global Times story, titled “Ferrari Crash Information Hushed Up,” reported that “almost all online information about a car crash on Sunday, in which a man driving a Ferrari was killed and his two female passengers injured, has been deleted overnight, triggering suspicions as to the identity of the deceased driver.” That article, which relied on reporting and photography from a Beijing Evening News journalist, is now no longer easily available on the Global Times website.

The nexus of rich youngsters and Ferraris has proven particularly deadly this year in Asia. On Tuesday, the 27-year-old Thai grandson of the businessman responsible for energy drink Red Bull was arrested for allegedly crashing his dark gray Ferrari into a motorcycle-riding policeman, then using his car to push the man’s body down the road before driving into family’s gated residence. In May, a 31-year-old Chinese investor plowed his red Ferrari into two other vehicles in Singapore, killing three people, including himself, and galvanizing local anti-mainland-Chinese fervor. The crash, which killed a Singaporean taxi driver and a Japanese tourist, also prompted criticism of the Singaporean government for allowing large-scale mainland-Chinese immigration to the city-state. The politics of wayward sports cars, it seems, isn’t limited to China.

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