LOOMIS (California) • 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 US next month, including an extensive cybertheft of US government data and China's aggressive territorial claims.
Mr Ling is the youngest brother of Mr 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. Mr Ling Jihua is one of the highest-profile casualties of an anti-corruption campaign by Mr Xi.
Mr Ling's wealth and his family's status have allowed him to move freely in elite circles in China, and he may be in possession of embarrassing information about current and former officials loyal to Mr Xi.
Mr Ling appears to have evaded the Chinese authorities. He is now in the US, according to several American officials and his next-door neighbour in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada mountains, where property records show Mr Ling owns a 724 sq m home, which he bought for US$2.5 million (S$3.4 million).
China in recent months has been raising pressure on the Obama administration to return Mr Ling, according to US officials. Several officials confirmed that Mr Ling is in the US, but they would not say where he is applying or has applied for asylum.
The delicate diplomatic matter has already complicated an arrangement made in April between the Department of Homeland Security and China's Ministry of Public Security.
Under that arrangement, the US would be able to repatriate many of the tens of thousands of Chinese awaiting deportation, some in US detention facilities. In return, the US would help the Chinese track down wealthy fugitives from China living in the US who might also be breaking American laws.
Mr Christopher Johnson, a former Central Intelligence Agency analyst focusing on China, said the Chinese leadership might want Mr Ling's assistance in prosecuting his older brother. And, Mr Johnson said, it would want to prevent the "treasure trove" of knowledge he has about Chinese politics from being passed on to US officials.
The Communist Party itself has revealed some tantalising clues about his brother Ling Jihua's behaviour, expelling him and saying that he had "accepted huge bribes personally and through his family". He was previous president Hu Jintao's personal secretary and closest protege, and was expected to advance to the elite Politburo.
But on March 18, 2012, Mr Ling Jihua's son was killed when a Ferrari he was driving crashed in Beijing. One of two women in the car later died. Mr Ling Jihua's botched cover- up of the episode helped lead to his political downfall and, last December, he was officially put under a corruption probe. As a senior official, Mr 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 firms that went on to hold successful initial public offerings, earning the company US$225 million, according to Chinese media company Caixin.
NEW YORK TIMES