Chinese prosecutors formally charged a former top aide to retired President Hu Jintao, setting the stage for a trial of the last member of a Communist Party faction dubbed the "New Gang of Four."
Ling Jihua, 59, who had served as Hu’s chief of staff, was accused of taking bribes, illegally obtaining state secrets and abusing power, the official Xinhua News Agency said, citing a statement by state prosecutors. He’ll be prosecuted in Tianjin’s No. 1 Intermediate People’s Court, the same tribunal that oversaw last year’s secret conviction of former security czar Zhou Yongkang, a retired member of the Politburo’s supreme Standing Committee.
The indictment comes almost 10 months after the party expelled Ling and accused him of corruption and discipline violations, including carrying on extramarital affairs. He was previously stripped of his post as vice chairman of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference.
The trial represents the closing chapter of a far-reaching corruption probe under President Xi Jinping that toppled Zhou and two of the country’s top generals. Ling was considered a top candidate for the ruling Politburo before his ascent was cut short by claims that he tried to cover up details of the March 2012 death of his son in a Ferrari crash, the South China Morning Post reported in September that year.
"Ling’s offense in illegally obtaining state secrets is serious; he also committed extremely serious offense in abusing his power and causing major losses to public property and the interests of the country and its people," Xinhua said, citing the indictment.
Ling may face a secret trial as similar charges over state secrets were cited by Xinhua in June as the reason for the closed-door trial for Zhou, who was sentenced to life in prison.
Ling is among the most high-profile party targets of an ongoing anti-corruption campaign that has ensnared more than 100,000 officials since Xi came to power. Party members have tied Ling to Zhou, former top General Xu Caihou and former Chongqing party secretary Bo Xilai as making up a "New Gang of Four," even though the links between them aren’t clear. Xu and Bo were also charged with corruption.
In January, Xi warned top graft-busters that some officials were "forming cabals and cliques to covertly defy" the leadership and that such groups risked "compromising the political security of the party and the country," according to a transcript of the remarks first published on May 3.
Ling’s prosecution could reverberate in the U.S., where his youngest brother, Ling Wancheng, has been living. In January, Chinese anti-graft authorities acknowledged for the first they were "investigating the case and negotiating with the U.S." about the younger Ling.
Li Xiaolin, a Beijing-based lawyer who has defended senior officials and their families, said the verdict in Ling Jihua’s case would depend on the amount of money involved, as well as the particular secrets taken and who ended up with them.
"The state secrets Ling could have leaked could be more than any one else could possibly have, and it’s also a serious problem that his brother is in the U.S.," Li said. "Based on the charges, he’s likely to receive serious punishment and could face the death penalty if convicted."