BEIJING -- China's carefully scripted leadership transition appears to have suffered another glitch: a fatal car crash involving a Ferrari, a privileged son and two women.
According to several well-connected party officials, the crash, on Beijing's Fourth Ring Road earlier this year, killed the man on impact and left both women seriously injured. All were said to have been in various states of undress, these officials said.
It might have been just another example of China's crassly rich elite exercising bad judgment -- except for the identity of the driver. On Monday, the officials said he was the son of one of China's most powerful men, Ling Jihua, 55, a close ally of the departing president, Hu Jintao.
The connection had apparently been able to be suppressed until this past weekend, when Mr. Ling suddenly suffered a demotion instead of a promotion when he left his role as head of the government's nerve center, the General Office of the party's Central Committee. He will now lead the United Front Work Department, a less powerful post aimed at improving ties with groups in society, though some analysts said he could still reach the Politburo at some point.
The shift comes in the midst of major behind-the-scenes jockeying as the once-in-a-decade power transition unfolds. "The question is how this will affect Hu Jintao," said Joseph Fewsmith, a Boston University professor. "To have to drop Ling Jihua is embarrassing. He lost a key ally here."
The most straightforward analysis is that Mr. Ling's demise could help the anointed president, Xi Jinping, consolidate power more quickly by sidelining one of Mr. Hu's protégés, through whom Mr. Hu might have been able to exercise power even after retiring. Mr. Ling's replacement at the Central Committee is a provincial official, Li Zhanshu, who has been friends with Mr. Xi since the two served in Hebei Province in the 1980s. He also has ties to Mr. Hu.
But on another level, Mr. Ling's downfall could hurt the transition. With Mr. Ling now essentially sidelined, Mr. Hu and his faction may feel slighted, implying that carefully shaped compromises intended to ease Mr. Xi's rise may be unraveling.
The shift comes just as the leadership has been dealing with another shock to the system: the fall of a senior leader, Bo Xilai. Mr. Bo lost his prominent party positions after his wife was detained in the murder of a British businessman, for which she has now been convicted. An announcement regarding Mr. Bo's fate is widely expected in coming weeks, wrapping up the matter ahead of the 18th Party Congress this fall.
The circumstances surrounding the crash were first posted in June on overseas Chinese Web sites but remained unconfirmed in mainstream English media until reported in The South China Morning Post on Monday. Reuters then also confirmed most of the details on Monday, although one of its sources said Mr. Ling's son did not die in the crash.
Party officials reached by The New York Times confirmed the son's death, the make of the car and the presence of the two women, as well as their incomplete dress.
The details, salacious as they are, are important because Mr. Bo lost his positions partly for "family management" failings. Many party members or their close family members often violate rules by engaging in business or having less-than-exemplary personal lives -- but are expected to keep it under wraps.
Evaluating the truthfulness of these reports is tricky because various factions -- especially during a transition like the one between Mr. Hu and Mr. Xi -- often leak information to discredit opponents.
This is why the accident became such a hot potato after it occurred. The government-run Global Times reported on it in March without identifying the victims. It did say, however, that information, including photos posted on microblogging sites, had been deleted.
"Whose son was it" who died? said the historian Zhang Lifan. "It was a son no one dared to claim."
Andrew Jacobs and Jonathan Ansfield contributed reporting, and Mia Li contributed research.world
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.