BEIJING - The Chinese Communist Party's sacking of a former top presidential aide for corruption was timed to prevent distractions at an upcoming gathering of party leaders, and could be the start of a lull in the anti-corruption crackdown on heavyweight targets, analysts say.
Mr Ling Jihua, 58, was head of the Central Committee's General Office and aide to former president Hu Jintao, and one of the highest ranked politicians nailed under China's current crackdown.
State media reported on Monday night he has been expelled from the party and will be handed over to prosecutors, after a probe opened last December found evidence he had taken "huge bribes", "traded power for sex", and illegally obtained party and state secrets.
The announcement comes just ahead of an important annual summer meeting of party leaders in Beidaihe, where they are expected to chart the direction for major domestic issues, including managing China's slowing growth.
The unsettled matter of Mr Ling's graft probe would have hung over the meeting because of his close links with party leaders and elders, as well as key factions, analysts told The Straits Times.
"But once it's settled, there's no more discussion," said Dr Chen Gang from the East Asian Institute at the National University of Singapore. "Then they can concentrate on other matters."
At one point tipped to become a member of the elite Politburo, Mr Ling's downfall was sparked by the controversial death of his son from a car accident in 2012.
Mr Ling Gu, 23, had smashed his speeding Ferrari into a wall, killing himself and two female passengers. All three were found naked or semi-naked.
The incident triggered a strong backlash among the public, who saw it as another case of a top party official's child living an impossibly rich, privileged life with no regard for the law.
The elder Ling allegedly tried to cover up the lurid details of the crash. He was subsequently demoted.
Some experts say Mr Ling's arrest - coming amid rumours that he may not stand trial due to a nervous breakdown - signals President Xi Jinping's continued resolve to bring down corrupt powerful "tigers".
"History shows that power has to be handled with caution," said a Global Times editorial on Mr Ling's downfall. "Be they officials or civilians, they can only live a peaceful life when they comply with party discipline and the law."
Yesterday, Chinese authorities also announced they will prosecute former senior graftbuster Zhong Shixian for corruption. The former head of the corruption prevention bureau in coastal Guangdong allegedly took bribes and interfered in investigations.
Another heavily speculated "tiger" target is former senior military figure Guo Boxiong.
But with signs of an apparent slowdown in new investigations of political bigwigs, Mr Ling's arrest could portend the start of a lull ahead of a leadership transition at the 19th Party Congress in 2017, said Dr Willy Lam from the Chinese University of Hong Kong.
The charge of obtaining state secrets could also mean that Mr Ling's impending trial will be held behind closed doors, which would prevent the leak of embarrassing and politically destabilising details.
"Stability is now Xi's overriding concern," Dr Lam told The Straits Times. "After Ling and maybe Guo, it's possible there won't be any more big 'tigers' caught until the 19th Party Congress is over."
Graft targets and fighters
Ling Jihua is one of the biggest scalps in the country's unprecedented anti-corruption drive. Here's a look at the officials who were nabbed and the key graft fighters.
ZHOU YONGKANG, 72
Former position: Politburo Standing Committee member.
The most senior Chinese politician ever convicted of corruption, Zhou and his family were found guilty of taking 129.7 million yuan (S$28.6 million) worth of bribes.
He was sentenced to life in prison.
XU CAIHOU, 71
Former positions: Central Military Commission vice-chairman and Politburo member.
The highest-ranking People's Liberation Army (PLA) officer to be brought down for corruption, Xu confessed to taking bribes to aid promotions, but died of bladder cancer in March before his trial could start.
WANG TIANPU, 52
Former position: Sinopec Group president.
Wang allegedly awarded Sinopec contracts to his family and relatives and gave favours to Zhou Yongkang's son Zhou Bin over equipment sales.
GUO ZHENGGANG, 45
Former position: PLA Zhejiang deputy political commissar.
Investigations into Guo, who was probed for corruption in March, fuelled speculation about the future of his father, senior retired PLA figure Guo Boxiong.
GAO JINSONG, 51
Former position: Kunming party chief.
Gao was suspected of paying bribes of several million yuan to Bai Enpei, a former party chief of Yunnan.
YANG XIUZHU, 68
Former position: Wenzhou deputy mayor.
She is accused of embezzling 253 million yuan during her time overseeing construction projects as a deputy mayor in Wenzhou.