Ling had powerbases in the northern province of Shanxi and the Communist Youth League — seen as a proving ground for politicians who, unlike Xi, do not benefit from family links to high-ranking revolutionaries.
One of his brothers, Ling Zhengce, a senior official in Shanxi, was put under investigation in 2014 for serious violations of “discipline and the law” — a euphemism for corruption — and expelled from the party last year.
Another brother, Ling Wancheng, has fled to the United States, a Chinese anti-graft official confirmed in January, adding Beijing was “in touch” with Washington about his case.
His exile has led to speculation in overseas Chinese media that Ling Jihua had given him top state secrets, including the launch codes for China’s nuclear weapons, to secure some leverage in negotiations with Beijing over his case.
Under Chinese law the death penalty is available for corruption cases, but Xinhua said Ling was given a reduced sentence for having “faithfully” confessed to his crimes and being penitent for his actions.
It was “a relatively lenient sentence”, Willy Lam of the Chinese University of Hong Kong told AFP. “It’s possible Ling drove a bargain with authorities.”
His former boss Hu was probably safe, Lam added, saying that the former president “made a wise decision by refusing to support Ling”.
But other Hu proteges “may now be blocked from promotion” as Xi consolidates his power over the government, he said.