PREMIER LEAGUE (1): After fatal Ferrari crash, careers are stalled, group loses power

March 05, 2013

THE ASAHI SHIMBUN

Editor's note: This is our fourth series on the inner workings of the Chinese Communist Party. Previously, we described the downfall of rising star Bo Xilai, profiled the powerful children of high-ranking party members, and explained the leadership shift in 2012.The latest series, "Premier League," focuses on the Communist Youth League and the high-ranking officials who have risen--and fallen--through its ranks. The series will appear on Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays.

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BEIJING--In a private room of an expensive restaurant in Beijing, a woman exuding sophistication, power and wealth leaned toward her dinner companion who worked at a government-affiliated think tank.

"If you join our business project, you will be able to dine together with my husband," the woman, Gu Liping, said.

That was in autumn 2007, when Gu’s husband, Ling Jihua, was chief of the General Office of the Communist Party Central Committee, a post comparable to that of Japan's chief Cabinet secretary.

It was a time when people would jump at any opportunity just to ride Ling’s coattails or cozy up to the Communist Youth League, which was fostering the next generation of party leaders.

But within a few years, rising politicians from the Communist Youth League would see their careers falter. Ling, 56, would be demoted and humiliated—and become the subject of corruption rumors--following the death of his son in a Ferrari accident.

In rosier times, Ling served as an aide to Hu Jintao, general secretary of the Communist Party of China, and was long considered Hu's closest associate. Others who have served in that post include Wen Jiabao, 70, the current premier.

Ling and Hu both came up through the ranks of the Communist Youth League.

Gu’s aura of confidence was fueled in part by her husband’s rise up the party hierarchy.

In 2010, Gu became a deputy director of the Ying public interest foundation set up under the Communist Youth League. Those who donated to the foundation received special rewards depending on the level of their generosity, according to sources.

For example, a donation of 1 million yuan (about 15 million yen or $160,000) gained the donor an autograph from Ling. For 10 million yuan, the donor had the honor of dining with Ling. A 100-million-yuan donation allowed the donor to have his or her photo taken with Ling at Zhongnanhai, the inner sanctum of the Communist Party and Chinese government that lies west of the Forbidden City in central Beijing.

According to sources, the foundation amassed about 500 million yuan in donations in a little over two years.

Under the Hu administration, high-ranking Communist Youth League individuals like Ling were almost guaranteed promotion to important party posts. They had become so powerful that they formed a faction that rivaled the “princelings,” the offspring of senior party officials, and the Shanghai faction, centered around Jiang Zemin, 86, Hu's predecessor as general secretary.

Under these conditions, the rising fortunes of Gu's foundation came as no surprise.

"It was due to the fact that the Communist Youth League was the incarnation of power," said a researcher at the Communist Party's Central Party School, a training ground for party elite.

However, in March 2012, a Ferrari driven by the son of Ling and Gu crashed into an overpass of a loop road in Beijing. The son and two female passengers were killed.

According to several party sources, Ling dispatched a unit of the Central Guard Bureau to the scene to cover up the accident. The bureau’s usual job is to send out bodyguards for the general secretary.

The accident gave Jiang and his allies the opportunity to knock the Communist Youth League down a notch. Some of them accused Ling of using the military for his personal use. Others even called into question Hu's responsibility as Ling's superior.

One question frequently raised was where the son got the money to buy the Ferrari, which can cost about 6 million yuan (about 90 million yen) in China.

In September 2012, Ling was demoted from his post as chief of the General Office to head of the United Front Work Department.

Two months later, at the National Party Congress, Ling's name was not on the roster of Politburo members, even though he had long been rumored to be a top candidate.

Gu left her post at the foundation at the end of January, following reports that she had been questioned by party officials.

A foundation official indicated the accident played a part in her resignation.

"There were political factors involved," the official said.

Rumors about the accident continued to create waves within the party.

A judicial source close to a former Politburo member said: "Shortly before it crashed into the overpass column, the Ferrari was hit by another car. It was not simply an accident."

Ling continues to make public appearances, but there are almost no reports about what he has said as head of the United Front Work Department.

LEAGUE CAUGHT UP IN POWER STRUGGLE

The last time Gu was seen in public as a foundation deputy director was over a three-day period from Jan. 19. It was at a closed-door session held by the Ying public interest foundation at the Beijing Friendship Hotel, a venerable site with spacious grounds lined by poplar trees in the western part of the capital.

According to a source who attended the gathering, Gu spoke for close to an hour about the foundation's management.

But a party source said about Ling, "He does not appear to have been directly involved in any suspicious deals made by the foundation."

One source with a state-run company recalls visiting a members-only social club in 2008 with Ling and several company executives. After a meal and massage, the man tried to pay the 800 yuan to cover Ling's expenses. Ling, however, declined the offer.

"Although I have socialized with a number of high-ranking officials, that was the first time that has happened," the source said.

Former members of the Communist Youth League were considered clean technocrats, compared with the princelings in the 1990s who were accused of corruption.

The recent incidents related to Ling changed the perceptions of those associated with the Communist Youth League.

"The after-effects from the Ferrari accident have not completely gone away,” said a party source who worked at the General Office before Ling. “While Ling may have maintained his political life, he can no longer be considered part of the core line of power."

After becoming general secretary in 2002, Hu, 70, promoted many league alumni to important posts, leading to a power struggle as party elders, including Jiang, have resisted such moves.

At the 2007 National Party Congress, Hu promoted Li Keqiang to a Politburo Standing Committee member. Li, 57, served directly under Hu in the Communist Youth League. However, Jiang and his allies went one better and named Xi Jinping, 59, to a post from where he would eventually succeed Hu.

At last year's National Party Congress, Li was the only one of the seven named as Politburo Standing Committee members with clear ties to the Communist Youth League.

The other members had closer ties to Jiang and other party elders as well as the princelings.

Li Yuanchao was initially believed a sure bet to join the Standing Committee. He had come up through the league ranks and headed the Communist Party's Central Committee Organization Department. However, he only ended up with a Politburo seat.

According to several party sources, a major turning point in top personnel decisions came at a closed-door session last September in Beijing involving top party officials and party elders.

One item on the agenda was deciding disciplinary measures against Bo Xilai, who was dismissed in the spring as secretary of the Chongqing municipal Communist Party committee. One of Bo’s closest associates sought political asylum at the U.S. Consulate General.

When the decision was made to strip Bo of his party membership, Li Peng, 84, a former premier and a party elder in the conservative camp, spoke up.

"Are we not going to question the responsibility of those who praised the activities of comrade Bo?" Li Peng asked.

It was a shot at Li Yuanchao. Although Li Yuanchao was not the only member of the top leadership corps who praised Bo's efforts to rid Chongqing of gang influence, a party source said Li Peng held a personal grudge.

Li Peng apparently wanted a promotion for his oldest son, Li Xiaopeng, who was standing vice governor of Shanxi province. However, Li Yuanchao refused to promote the son.

There was also dissatisfaction at Li Yuanchao for failing to take strong action against pro-democracy students during the Tiananmen Square crackdown in 1989, when he was a high-ranking official of the Communist Youth League.

Because Li Peng was among those calling for military force to suppress the demonstrators, one party source said Li Yuanchao appeared to those officials as "an existence who could affect the survival of the party."

The National People's Congress starts on March 5, but it is not clear what will happen. There are plans to have General Secretary Xi turn over the vice president's post, which he now holds concurrently, to Li Yuanchao. Hu is lobbying strongly for the move, and sources said Xi was also leaning in that direction.

But some party elders are said to be upset at the suggestion.

Other former Communist Youth League officials could face rocky futures.

Hu Chunhua, 49, a former head of the league, is considered a candidate for the next leadership corps.

However, Hu is now secretary of the Guangdong provincial Communist Party committee, and he has his hands full dealing with the censorship row involving a local newspaper, the Southern Weekly.

"It is now no longer certain whether he will be promoted in a smooth fashion," a party source said.

A source with a relative who once held a ministerial-level post compared the characteristics of those who came up through the league with those of the princelings.

"They (league members) lack a sense of (political) balance because they have always been model students,” the source said. “They tend to create enemies easily and are not strong in power struggles."

MASS ORGANIZATION TO FOSTER PARTY ELITE

A ceremony was held in May 2012 at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing to mark the 90th anniversary of the founding of the Communist Youth League.

Before an audience of about 6,000 party elite, Hu Jintao, general secretary at the time, said in a speech: "The Communist Youth League is a loyal assistant to the party and a pillar of a socialist government."

The league bylaws define it as "an advanced mass organization for youth that is led by the party." Its main mission is to foster future candidates for top party posts. It has about 80 million members, and its budget last year was about 500 million yuan, of which 75 percent came from the party.

"The league's (organization) covers the entire nation," said Shi Guoliang, a researcher of the Communist Youth League who is also a director of the China youth and children society.

The league has bases in educational institutions, companies, the military and local governments around China and develops future party members. By organizing the youth, it also supports the one-party rule of the Communist Party.

Past members of the league have had an advantage in gaining jobs with state-run organizations.

Those who become party members and win the political competition can climb the ladder to higher posts in the government and party.

(This article was compiled from reports by Kenji Minemura and Nozomu Hayashi in Beijing and Koichiro Ishida in Shenyang.)

THE ASAHI SHIMBUN
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The Communist Youth League headquarters in central Beijing (Nozomu Hayashi)

The Communist Youth League headquarters in central Beijing (Nozomu Hayashi)

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  • The Communist Youth League headquarters in central Beijing (Nozomu Hayashi)
  • The traffic accident scene in Beijing in March 2012 in which the son of Ling Jihua died after driving the black Ferrari. (From the Internet)
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