BEIJING — China's hopes for a smooth, once-a-decade political transition have been shaken by a lurid new scandal involving the death of a senior official's son, who crashed during what may have been sex games in a speeding Ferrari.
Details of the March accident in Beijing, which allegedly also injured two young women, have stayed under wraps in China but are leaking out via media in Hong Kong.
The media blackout underscores official fears that the public will be outraged by another instance of excess and recklessness among China's power elites.
The embarrassing new wrinkle follows the murder trial last month of a top leader's wife who poisoned her British business associate last year.
Both scandals have become bargaining chips in the jockeying for power ahead of a major leadership reshuffle this fall.
The South China Morning Post on Monday cited an unnamed official in Beijing as confirming that Ling Gu, the son of a loyal aide to President Hu Jintao, was the person killed in a March 18 Ferrari accident that initially garnered only minimal coverage in China's state media.
The report said Mr. Ling was half-naked when the crash occurred, and his two passengers were naked or half-dressed, suggesting they had been involved in some kind of high-speed sex game.
Several other news outlets later cited additional unnamed officials as corroborating details.
However, efforts to get officials to confirm the report publicly were unsuccessful. Faxed requests for information to the Public Security Bureau and China's Cabinet were not answered immediately.
Peking University, where Mr. Ling was a student, would not comment, but political science professor Yang Chaohui said the young man has not been seen there since March.
"We have discussed this matter in class. I personally am quite concerned about this matter, and according to various signs, I think we can confirm that his death is a true fact," Mr. Yang said.
The Post's story came just days after the Chinese government announced that Ling Gu's father had been transferred to a new position, a move that analysts said ended his ambitions for a post in the upper ranks of the top leadership. Observers said the shift appeared linked to his son's scandalous death.
On Saturday, Ling Jihua was named as the new head of the United Front Work Department, and his old job as director of the general office of the Communist Party's Central Committee was given to Li Zhanshu — thought to be a close ally of Vice President Xi Jinping, the man tapped to be China's next president.
As head of the executive office, Mr. Li will be responsible for personnel arrangements for the party's top leaders. A comparable position in U.S. politics is the president's chief of staff.
The appointment of Mr. Li ahead of a party congress, which should happen in the coming weeks or months, shows that Mr. Xi already is gaining power. Such personnel changes usually occur during or after the party congress.
China politics analyst Bo Zhiyue of the National University of Singapore called the personnel change "a very important signal that a power transition is taking place."
In Communist Party politics, the outgoing leader, who has built a support base while in office, typically attempts to retain power after leaving office, a check on the new administration.
Mr. Bo said he thought the shift is being accelerated, creating an arrangement "more in favor of the new leadership than the old one."
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