Another day, another scandal. The timing of this one is particularly disconcerting for the CCP, coming a few weeks before they are expected to hold the 18th Party Congress with a changing of the guard that takes place every ten years. This is an odd one with more questions than answers. Did the son of one of China’s highest-ranking officials really die when the Ferrari he was driving crashed into a wall in March 2011? What happened to the two female passengers who were reported to be in the car with him? Was his father demoted because of the embarrassing incident or were there other reasons? And then there’s the biggest question of them all: what was the son of a party official earning about $15,000 a year doing driving a half-million dollar car?
A fresh scandal has hit China’s leadership ahead of this autumn’s once-a-decade transition of power, with reports that a close ally of president Hu Jintao has been blocked for promotion or even demoted following his son’s involvement in a fatal Ferrari crash.
Photos of the horrific smash in Beijing were deleted within hours of appearing on microblogs and websites in March. Even searches for the word “Ferrari” were blocked on the popular Sina Weibo microblog – prompting widespread speculation that a senior leader’s child was involved.
Now unnamed sources have identified the driver of the black sports car as the son of Ling Jihua, who was removed as head of the party’s general office of the central committee this weekend, the South China Morning Post and Reuters reported.
Another article raises question about whether there even was a fatal crash:
Sources quoted by Reuters said at least one of the trio died but that the victims’ identities were unclear; one said the young man had survived….One of Ling’s room-mates at Peking University, from where he graduated with a degree in International Politics in 2011, said he had not been able to contact his friend since the crash.
“We have all been trying to get in touch with him since we heard about the car accident,” he said. “He was supposed to go to graduate school, but he has not been seen since the crash. The last time I saw him was in July 2011.”
“I really cannot tell what happened. But all of his friends said it happened, so I guess it must have,” he added.
While some reports say searches on Weibo for “Ferrari” are blocked, I saw some tweets from China this morning saying it’s not true. Needless to say, any mention of the story by the media has long been banned. The timing couldn’t be worse for the CCP, already beleaguered by the Bo Xilai-Neil Heywood scandals. The People’s Congress is all about harmony and unity, and that threatens to be overshadowed by an atmosphere of suspicion and outrage over the blatant corruption of the Party.The CCP is in a real bind, seeking to get out its message of harmony while people are seething over its lawlessness.
On a related note, I saw an opinion piece nearly a week ago that I think ties into the story above. It’s by perennial China critic Minxin Pei, who insists the bulk of the Chinese people are disgusted with their government while the overseas executives doing business there are utterly charmed.
One of the most glaring, if unremarked, oddities concerning China nowadays is how perceptions of its leaders diverge depending on the observer. In the eyes of the Chinese public, government officials are venal, incompetent, and interested solely in getting lucrative appointments. But Western executives invariably describe Chinese officials as smart, decisive, knowledgeable, and far-sighted – roughly the same adjectives that they once used to describe Bo Xilai, the disgraced Communist Party boss of Chongqing, before he was purged.
It is impossible to reconcile these views. Either the Chinese public is impossible to please, or Western executives are hopelessly wrong. But, given that daily experience places Chinese citizens in an infinitely better position than Western executives to evaluate Chinese officials and their conduct, one would have to conclude that they are almost certainly right. And that means that Westerners who have spent considerable time in China and consider themselves seasoned “China hands” need to ask why they have gotten it so wrong.
One obvious explanation is that Chinese officials are extremely good at seducing Western businessmen with friendly gestures and generous promises. The same officials who lord it over ordinary Chinese people often summon irresistible charm to woo Western investors.
You have to consider the source; I’m not sure how he measures most Chinese people’s attitudes toward the CCP. We need to remember that a 2009 Pew Research poll showed most Chinese are happy about the direction the government is taking the country, so who knows? From my own experience, which counts for little, I find the Chinese public’s attitude toward the government ambiguous at best: Yes, they’re slimy and corrupt and we have huge issues with them, but we can’t imagine China with any other kind of leadership. Meanwhile, these damaging scandals are not helping the party image, and one has to wonder if/when the Chinese say enough is enough. I remain pessimistic they will say this anytime soon. There is simply no alternative.
Richard Burger is the author of Behind the Red Door: Sex in China, an exploration of China's sexual revolution and its clash with traditional Chinese values.