China's former president Hu Jintao not implicated in graft probe into aide, official says

BEIJING (Reuters) - Retired former Chinese president Hu Jintao is not being implicated in a corruption probe into a former top aide, a senior government spokesman said on Friday, adding that the official was being investigated more over financial issues than political ones.

Mr Ling Jihua was demoted in September 2012 without explanation. Sources told Reuters that the move happened after his son was involved in a deadly crash involving a luxury sports car in Beijing. Mr Ling was dropped from his post as head of the party's General Office of the Central Committee, a powerful job similar to Cabinet secretary in Westminster-style governments.

He was then appointed as minister for the less influential United Front Work Department, which is in charge of co-opting non-Communists, religious groups and ethnic minorities, until being sacked last year when his graft probe was announced.

Mr Lu Xinhua, spokesman for the high-profile but largely ceremonial advisory body to parliament, said that it was wrong to believe that Mr Hu, as Mr Ling's former boss, was the real target of the investigation. "That is speculation without any basis. It is totally wrong," Mr Lu told a small group of reporters on the sidelines of the annual meeting of parliament, in rare comments on a sensitive case.

Sources have told Reuters that President Xi Jinping secured the blessing of Mr Hu, his still influential predecessor, before launching the investigation into Mr Ling, a sign that internal Communist Party harmony and respect for elders still holds sway in Mr Xi's sweeping crackdown on official graft.

Mr Lu said the stories about Mr Ling's son were "all just rumour at the moment". "I think if this did happen to the son, then certainly (the probe into Ling) is related," he said. "However, I don't think the son is the main reason. It's mostly his own problems. I think it's economic problems."

Chinese officials often use the phrase "economic problems" to refer to bribery and embezzlement.

The car, a Ferrari according to some of the sources, crashed in Beijing in March 2012 in an embarrassment for the ruling Communist Party, which is sensitive to perceptions that children of top party officials live rich, privileged lifestyles out of touch with the masses, the sources said.

It has not been possible to find contact information for Mr Ling, and it is not clear if he has a lawyer.

Mr Ling is from the coal-rich northern province of Shanxi, which has emerged as a focus of Mr Xi's fight against deep-seated graft, with several senior officials under investigation, including Mr Ling's brother Ling Zhengce.

The official China Daily on Friday quoted Vice-Premier Ma Kai as saying the problem in Shanxi was "like a cancer".