China is demanding that the Obama administration return a wealthy and politically connected businessman who fled to the United States, according to several American officials familiar with the case. Should he seek political asylum, he could become one of the most damaging defectors in the history of the People’s Republic.
The case of the businessman, Ling Wancheng, has strained relations between two nations already at odds over numerous issues before President Xi Jinping’s first state visit to the United States in September, including an extensive cybertheft of U.S. government data and China’s aggressive territorial claims.
Ling is the youngest brother of Ling Jihua, who for years held a post equivalent to that of the White House chief of staff, overseeing the Communist Party’s inner sanctum as director of its General Office. Ling Jihua is one of the highest-profile casualties of an anti-corruption campaign that Xi has made a centerpiece of his government.
Ling appears to have evaded Chinese authorities. He is now in the United States, according to several U.S. officials and his next-door neighbor in Loomis, where property records show Ling owns a 7,800-square-foot home, which he bought from former Sacramento Kings player Beno Udrih for $2.5 million.
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The Obama administration has thus far refused to accede to Beijing’s demands for Ling Wancheng, and his possible defection could be an intelligence coup at China’s expense after it was revealed last month that computer hackers had stolen the personnel files of millions of U.S. government workers and contractors. American officials have said that they are nearly certain the Chinese government carried out the data theft.
Ling’s wealth and his family’s status have allowed him to move freely in elite circles in China, and he may possess embarrassing information about current and former officials loyal to Xi.
The Chinese government in recent months has been raising pressure on the Obama administration to return Ling, according to the American officials. The officials spoke on the condition of anonymity in order to discuss a delicate diplomatic matter that has already complicated an arrangement made in April between the Department of Homeland Security and China’s Ministry of Public Security.
Under that arrangement, signed during a visit to Beijing by Jeh Johnson, the secretary of Homeland Security, the United States would be able to repatriate many of the tens of thousands of Chinese awaiting deportation, some in U.S. detention facilities. In return, the United States would help the Chinese track down wealthy fugitives from China living in the United States who might also be breaking U.S. laws.
Several American officials confirmed that Ling is in the United States, but they would not say publicly whether Ling had applied for asylum or give information about his whereabouts. The Department of Homeland Security, which handles asylum cases, does not comment about specific cases because of privacy laws.
China’s Foreign Ministry did not comment after being sent a faxed request for information on Ling’s case. Press officers for the White House, State Department and Department of Homeland Security declined to comment.
Three phone numbers that people in California used to contact Ling all had Dallas area codes. Ling, whose English is said to be poor, did not respond to text messages in Chinese requesting an interview. Two of the three numbers are no longer in service, and no one answered the third number.
While it is unclear how much Ling Wancheng knows, the Communist Party itself has revealed some tantalizing clues about his brother Ling Jihua’s behavior, claiming that his corruption was a family affair. Last month, the party announced that Ling Jihua – a loyalist to the previous president, Hu Jintao – had been expelled from the party and would be tried, saying that he “accepted huge bribes personally and through his family.”
Ling Jihua, 58, rose through the Communist Party’s Youth League under Hu in the 1980s and eventually served as either deputy or chief of the Central Committee’s General Office from 1999 to 2012. He was Hu’s personal secretary and closest protégé, and his position came with great powers: the ability to control the guards that protected the senior leadership, a significant voice in top personnel appointments and a central role in carrying out policy.
“It’s really the nerve center for the entire system,” Joseph Fewsmith, a professor at the Pardee School of Global Studies at Boston University who focuses on Chinese politics, said of Ling Jihua’s former position. “This is the essence of power politics.”
Ling Jihua was expected to advance to the elite Politburo, as every person who previously held that position since 1942 had done, including former Prime Minister Wen Jiabao.
But on March 18, 2012, Ling Jihua’s son was killed when the black Ferrari he was driving crashed in Beijing. One of two women with him in the car later died.
Ling Jihua’s botched cover-up of the incident helped lead to his political downfall. He was denied a spot on the Politburo, demoted to a less important post and, in December 2014, he was officially put under investigation for corruption.
But the corruption inquiry into Ling Jihua goes far beyond the Ferrari crash, and his younger brother, Ling Wancheng, may have played an important role.
As a senior official, Ling Jihua had his moves monitored. But his brother, as a private citizen, was far less constrained.
He built a fortune as the chief of a Beijing-based investment company, which bought well-timed stakes in companies that would later go on to hold successful initial public offerings, earning the firm $225 million, according to a report in Caixin, a respected Chinese news media company. A company using the same California address that he used to buy his mansion in Loomis also bought at least two golf courses, one near Loomis, the other in Carson City, Nev., property records show.
In late 2013, Ling, using the name Wang Cheng, and a person using the name Li Ping, the same name as a former presenter on state television whom the Chinese news media have identified as Ling’s wife, bought the house in a gated community in Loomis from Udrih, who now plays for the Memphis Grizzlies, real estate records show.
Ray Matteson, Ling’s neighbor in Loomis, and his wife soon became friends with the couple next door, who introduced themselves as Jason and Jane Wang. The Mattesons invited them over for dinner or drinks at least three times. Ling took gifts, once giving them a bottle of liquor from the family’s home province, Shanxi, and on another occasion two magnums of California wine.
The Mattesons said their neighbor had given no hints about his family’s high-level political struggle, the arrest of his two older brothers or the death of his nephew.
“In my mind, there’s no question he was a gentleman,” said Matteson, who, along with another person who met him in Loomis, confirmed that Jason Wang was the man identified in the Chinese news media as Ling. Neither person, however, could match the woman introduced as Jane Wang with pictures of Li Ping, the former Chinese television presenter.
Matteson said he had not seen Ling since October, when the two couples had dinner at Matteson’s home. But if Ling was in hiding in the United States, the prosaic details of maintaining a California estate kept him tethered to Loomis: There were homeowners association fees to pay, and a gardener had to keep the bushes trimmed and the lawn mowed.
The Mattesons said they had never seen any unusual activity in the neighborhood, except for one visit several months ago by officers from the Department of Homeland Security, who said they were trying to contact Ling.
Ling Wancheng’s visa status is unclear. Christopher Bentley, a spokesman for the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, a division of Homeland Security, said that it usually took one to three years for an asylum case to be settled. During that period, he said, the asylum seeker is allowed to stay legally in the country.