A well-connected Chinese businessman living in California could become one of China's 'most damaging defectors' ever

Ling WanchengChinese mediaLing Wancheng

A wealthy and well-connected Chinese businessman is causing a problem for increasingly tenuous US-China relations, The New York Times reports, noting that “he could become one of the most damaging defectors in the history of the People’s Republic.”

That businessman, Ling Wancheng, is the brother of Ling Jihua, who was a top aide to former Chinese President Hu Jintao.

Unnamed US officials confirmed to the Times that Ling Wancheng is in the US.

He reportedly owns a $US2.5 million home in the Sierra Nevada foothills in California and might be seeking asylum in the US.

Wancheng is thought to possess damaging information about the Chinese government that would in turn be useful intelligence to the US. Christopher Johnson, a former CIA analyst focusing on China, told the Times that China would “want this guy badly.”

“There’s no question that he would have access to a lot of interesting things,” Johnson added.

The Times notes that Wancheng “may be in possession of embarrassing information about current and former officials loyal to [Chinese President] Xi [Jinping].”

The Communist Party in China appears to believe that corruption runs in the Ling family. Some of Wancheng’s business deals are in question, and Ling Jinhua has run into trouble himself.

In 2012, Ling Jinhua’s son was killed driving a black Ferrari that crashed in Beijing. A woman in the car with him also died.

Ling JihuaWieboA photo from the wreckage, according to Chinese social media.

Ling Jinhua tried to cover up the incident, according to The Times. He was demoted and the government started investigating him for corruption in 2014, according to the Times. His brother Wancheng then came under suspicion. But while his brother was closely watched, Wancheng apparently had more freedom.

Beijing now wants the US to send Ling Wancheng back to China, but Washington wants evidence of his alleged crimes.

Wancheng is an interesting figure. The South China Morning Post (SCMP) published a profile of him in December, detailing how Wancheng got swept up in the corruption investigation. He was reportedly a journalist before he became a businessman and was well-known for his gold fame.

He often used pseudonyms to mask his identity and family ties, according to the South China Morning Post.

Ling jihuaREUTERS/Jason LeeLing Jihua, newly elected vice chairman of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC), pauses while attending the opening ceremony of the CPPCC at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing March 3, 2013.

Wancheng’s specific whereabouts are unclear. His neighbours in California said they haven’t seen him since October, which is when SCMP reported that he was arrested. SCMP also reported that he travelled to the US but then went back to China.

The Wall Street Journal also noted in December that Wancheng was detained sometime in the fall.

Nevertheless, several officials confirmed to the Times that he’s in the US.

The real target of the investigation appears to be Ling Jihua. But Wancheng might have used the family’s power to his advantage as well.

All of this comes ahead of President Xi’s visit to the US in September. Wancheng’s status seems to be making relations even more tense between the two countries, and it’s unclear if the US would comply with a request to send Wancheng back to China.

Obama Xi JinpingREUTERS/Greg Baker/PoolU.S. President Barack Obama (L) and Chinese President Xi Jinping toast at a lunch banquet in the Great Hall of the People in Beijing.

Joshua Keating of Slate pointed out that Chinese exiles could be an intelligence boon for the US since well-connected defectors could possess information that would help the US.

“The Obama administration is reportedly in search of ways to retaliate for China’s ongoing hacking of US systems, including the alleged theft of millions of Americans’ personal data from the Office of Personnel Management last month,” Keating wrote. “It’s not clear what [Wancheng] 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.”

While Wancheng’s visa status is unclear, a spokesman for the US Citizenship and Immigration Services told the Times that an asylum seeker can stay legally in the US while the case is settled, which usually takes one to three years.

Check out the report at the Times >

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