The top aide to former Chinese President Hu Jintao has been placed under investigation for unspecified disciplinary violations, the official Xinhua News Agency said Monday, in a sign that President Xi Jinping is removing his predecessor's influences while consolidating his power.
The evening announcement came two years after the former aide, Ling Jihua, fell out of political favor when a lurid scandal involving his alleged cover-up of his son's death in a speeding Ferrari disrupted his political ascent.
But Ling returned to the public eye this year when authorities put his two brothers — one a politician in the coal-rich northern province of Shanxi and the other a businessman — under investigation, triggering speculation that Ling too would be implicated under Xi's widening anti-corruption campaign. The campaign is seen by many as a means to not only restore public confidence in the ruling Communist Party, but also to root out threats to Xi's political dominance.
Already, Xi has removed Bo Xilai, a former Politburo member, after imprisoning him for life on corruption charges. In early December, authorities arrested Zhou Yongkang, a former member of the Politburo's powerful Standing Committee, on charges ranging from adultery and bribery to leaking state secrets. Both Bo and Zhou were seen as challengers to Xi's political dominance.
Now, the latest to fall is Ling, Hu's former right-hand man. Although it is unclear whether Ling, 58, will be put on trial, the announcement of the investigation all but means the end of his political career, because the top leadership has likely already determined his fate.
Steve Tsang, senior fellow at the University of Nottingham's China Policy Institute, said Ling's fall is a clear sign that Hu never gained enough power to protect his associates after he stepped down as party chief in 2012.
"Ling Jihua has been in trouble for two years, but the question was whether Hu Jintao's protection could keep him out of trouble," Tsang said. "In the end, not surprisingly, it was not enough."
Tsang said Xi did not turn his attention to Ling earlier because he needed the support of associates of the Youth League — the party's youth arm — to topple Zhou. Before becoming China's president, Hu led the Youth League, which became his power base. Ling also hailed from the Youth League.
"It's a case that was put aside until they didn't need that support any longer," Tsang said. "There will be backslash from the Youth League people, but it won't matter any longer."
Ling had served as head of the Communist Party's general office, which gave him influence over key personnel arrangements, a position comparable in US politics to the president's chief of staff.
He became a household name in 2012 when his son crashed a Ferrari in Beijing during what might have been sex games with two nude or half-dressed women, reports by Hong Kong media said months later, and Ling Jihua was accused of covering up the scandal.
In the lead-up to a generational handover in power in 2012, Ling had appeared destined for a seat in the party's Politburo, a council of top leaders, but instead was removed from the top leadership when he was named the head of the United Front Work Department.
Premier Li Keqiang hails from the Youth League base, but his powers as China's economy chief have been compromised under Xi, said Willy Lam, an expert on Chinese politics at the Chinese University of Hong Kong. "It's an open secret that he's been sidelined. He's no longer the economy czar but has to defer to Xi," he said.
Two other prominent members of the Youth League political faction — Vice President Li Yuanchao and Vice Premier Wang Yang — also have seen their powers limited after they failed to make it to the Politburo's Standing Committee in 2012, Lam said.
"It looks like the entire Youth League faction will be under threat, as Hu Jintao has not been able to do anything about it," Lam said. "Ling Jihua is the symbol of the Youth League, as he has had close associations with Hu Jintao for more than 10 years."