Chinese President Xi Jingping has, at this point, amply demonstrated that not even the most powerful and well-connected people in China are safe from his massive anti-corruption crackdown. But one unintended consequence of the crackdown—which seems as much motivated by a desire to consolidate power and eliminate potential rivals as by legitimate concerns about graft—may be an intelligence boon for foreign governments. As Chinese officials and tycoons flee the long arm of the Communist Party, rivals like the U.S. may reap the benefits.
The New York Times reports that China is seeking the extradition of Ling Wancheng, a businessman and brother of a former high-ranking official who fled to the United States. Ling owns a house in an exclusive gated community in California, but his current whereabouts are unknown. (For fans of esoteric NBA trivia, he purchased the house from Beno Udrih of the Memphis Grizzlies.) Rumors have been swirling for months that Ling fled to the U.S. with dirt on senior Chinese leaders, and the Times suggests that “his possible defection could be an intelligence coup at China’s expense.”
A former journalist and amateur golf champion, Ling made a fortune in media, telecoms, and private equity. But more importantly for this story, he’s the younger brother of Ling Jihua, once the more senior aide to President Hu Jintao. The older Ling had been on the path to a senior leadership position in the party until March 2012, when his son crashed a Ferrari 458 Spider on a Beijing bridge, killing himself and wounding the two women riding with him. The car he was driving, reportedly bought for about $1 million, and a botched attempt to cover up the scandal, shone an unwelcome light on the private wealth of senior officials and their families and prompted widespread public anger.
It’s exactly that sort of case that has led the majority of the Chinese public to support Xi’s crackdown. Ling Jihua was repeatedly demoted and finally arrested last month after being accused of stealing party secrets, accepting bribes, and soliciting sex with political favors. Another brother was also arrested, but Wancheng, who is accused of exploiting his family connections for personal enrichment, seems to have slipped away.
Ling joins a growing cohort of wanted Chinese officials living in exile. The Chinese government has said that at least 150 “economic fugitives” are living in the United States. In addition, thousands of officials are believed to have sent their spouses and children abroad, to help funnel money out of the country and avoid prosecution. The assetless functionaries left behind are popularly known as “naked officials.”
Beijing has asked Washington for help in cracking down on the growing diaspora of well-heeled Chinese fugitives. In March it sent a “priority list” to the U.S. government of figures it wants returned, not including Ling, and the two governments agreed to enhance cooperation on fugitive cases. A few big fish have already been snared. Qiao Jianjun, the former director of a large grain stockpile, and his ex-wife were indicted in Los Angeles in March on charges that they lied about their marriage status as part of a scheme to funnel money out of China and immigrate to the U.S. The Wall Street Journal called it “one of the most visible signs of U.S. cooperation with China’s anticorruption crackdown.”
But Ling is a much higher-value target and has much better timing. The Obama administration is reportedly in search of ways to retaliate for China’s ongoing hacking of U.S. systems, including the alleged theft of millions of Americans’ personal data from the Office of Personnel Management last month. It’s not clear what Ling knows, but given what’s happened to his family over the past year, he certainly has a motive for spilling the beans, and will likely find a receptive audience.