Beijing has repeatedly asked U.S. officials to return a well-connected businessman who fled to the United States.
Should Ling Wangcheng seem political asylum, he could reveal a treasure trove of information to the United States. American officials believe that he could be one of the most damaging Chinese defectors ever, write Michael Forsythe and Mark Mazzetti for The New York Times.
Extradition case could complicate U.S.-China relations
The case adds another stress factor to the U.S.-China relationship, already strained due to cyber attacks and China’s aggressive territorial claims. Chinese President Xi Jinping is set to visit the U.S. in September, and the case will surely be on the agenda.
Ling is the youngest brother of former director of the Communist Party’s General Office, Ling Jihua. The older sibling has fallen victim to President Xi’s anti-corruption campaign and suffered a dramatic fall from grace.
Ling Wangcheng could be an important intelligence coup for Washington, and go some way to redressing the balance after China was accused of stealing data on millions of U.S. federal employees last month.
Wealthy, well-connected defector living in the United States
Ling’s family connections afforded him access to elite circles in China, and he may hold sensitive information about high-ranking Party officials. He managed to successfully evade Chinese authorities and flee to the U.S., where he is known to officials.
He was living in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada mountains at a 7,800-square-foot home that be bought from NBA basketball player Beno Udrih for $2.5 million. The fact that he is openly living in the U.S. is sure to bug China, which has recently been pressurizing the Obama administration to deport him.
A previous arrangement agreed between the Department of Homeland Security and China’s Ministry of Public Security has been complicated by the case of Ling. Jeh Johnson, U.S. secretary of Homeland Security, signed the deal during a visit to Beijing.
The deal would allow the U.S. to repatriate tens of thousands of Chinese who are currently awaiting deportation, in exchange for assisting China in locating wealthy fugitives currently living in the United States.
Ling family caught up in Xi’s anti-corruption probe
No U.S. officials have confirmed whether Ling has applied for asylum. Privacy laws prevent the Department of Homeland Security from commenting on specific cases.
Former CIA analyst Christopher K. Johnson believes that China may want Ling to assist with the case against his brother. Another motivation is to prevent state secrets from being passed to the United States.
It is not clear just how much Ling Wancheng knows about Chinese politics, but China has revealed that he may have been involved in Ling Jihua’s corrupt activities. The Communist Party claims that the corruption was a family affair, and made an announcement last month that Ling Jihua had been expelled from the party and would face trial. They accuse him of having “accepted huge bribes personally and through his family.”
Ling Jihua’s family hit the headlines in China for all the wrong reasons when his son died after crashing his black Ferrari in Beijing. A female friend later died of injuries sustained in the crash, which was subject to a botched cover up.
As headline-grabbing as the crash may have been, the corruption scandal is far wider and Ling Wancheng could have played an important role. Ling Jihua would have been subject to heavy surveillance as a senior official, but Ling Wancheng would have been less closely watched as a private citizen.
Ling Wancheng was able to build a vast personal fortune during his time at a Beijing-based investment company, making him an important defector regardless of his family ties.
Asylum bid could complicate matters
A number of Chinese citizens have been featured on a list which China have requested should be deported from the U.S. to China. The U.S.-China Joint Liaison Group on Law Enforcement Cooperation was set up to discuss these cases, and China regularly requests greater cooperation from the Obama administration.
It is not yet known whether Ling Wancheng has applied for asylum, although if he has done so it may be a long time before a decision is made. Christopher Bentley, a spokesman for the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services, a division of Homeland Security, said that it generally takes 1-3 years for an asylum case to be processed.
During that time, the applicant can legally live in the country. If he does so, Ling Wancheng could make relations between Washington and Beijing even more complicated at an already difficult time.
It seems almost certain that his case will be on the agenda during President Xi’s visit in September, although we may not immediately hear about the discussions.