It was 4 a.m. Sunday morning when a black Ferrari Spider 458 crashed into the concrete barrier and then a metal guardrail under the Baofusi Bridge in northwest Beijing, setting a million microblogs in motion.
From the photographs that were posted online by a reporter from the Beijing Evening News who rushed to the scene, the Ferrari had to have been travelling at a very high speed – the back end of the car was ripped clear by the force of the collision and deposited in the next lane. At least three wheels have been torn off. The driver and passenger-side airbags hang limply out the open windows.
Unsurprisingly, there were casualties. The driver, a young man described by witnesses as being in his 20s, died at the scene. Two young women (who apparently were sharing the rest of the limited space inside the two-seater Ferrari) were badly injured and taken to hospital.
That might have been the end of the story – another tale of reckless driving on Beijing's roads – if China's tireless censors hadn't kicked in and raised suspicions. First, the initial report by the Beijing Evening News disappeared from Sina Weibo, China's Twitter-like microblogging service. Then, other reports and comments on the crash started disappearing from other websites.
Soon, entering the word "Ferrari" on Chinese websites brought you to a dead end familiar to most of the country's 500 million Internet users: "According to the relevant policies and laws, the search results are not shown."
After years of living behind the "Great Firewall," those 13 words are now read by millions of Chinese as code for "there's more to this story than we want you to know about." (The same 13 words come up in response to thousands of other searches, including anything related to the 1989 Tiananmen Square crackdown, the persecution of the Falun Gong religious sect, and the Nobel Peace Prizes awarded to the Dalai Lama and Liu Xiaobo.) Why the secrecy surrounding the Ferrari crash? The assumption that quickly made the rounds was that the deceased young man must have been someone powerful, or at least someone with powerful connections.
As I've written before, anyone seen driving a Ferrari in the streets of Beijing is immediately presumed to be a member of China's "princeling" class, the sons and daughters of the Communist Party elite. (Bo Guagua, the playboy son of fallen Chongqing boss Bo Xilai, has famously been spotted in the streets of Beijing behind the wheel of a red Ferrari, though his family claims he doesn't own the car.) The fact that the Public Security Bureau refused to release the name of the dead driver, or any other details about their investigation into the crash, only heightened suspicions.
To the surprise of many, it was the Global Times, a newspaper affiliated with the Communist Party that gave voice to what many were whispering, albeit only in its English-language edition.
In an article titled " Ferrari crash information hushed up," the paper laid out the hypothesis of an unnamed Beijing resident: "They make such great efforts to wipe out the information, and it just proves that this young man must have a special background, maybe he's a high-ranking official's son."
When contacted by The Globe and Mail, a sales manager at Jundong Ferrari leant further credibility to that theory. The destroyed car was from their lot, he said (and then later denied). It sold for about 4.5 million yuan (upwards of $700,000), which would mean it came with plenty of extras, since the lot price in Canada and the United States is about a third of that. "All kinds of people [buy Ferraris] second-generation rich, [government]officials, as well as the first generation rich. Half of our buyers are young, and half are middle-aged."
Was it the son of someone in the Politburo who was killed? Guesses were posted too fast for the censors to delete them all, their efforts only fuelling more speculation. Despite the censorship, the tale of the twisted Ferrari became one the 10-most searched items on China's answer to Google, the Baidu web portal.
"If it's a common traffic accident, why be so nervous?" one commentator asked. But then even that casual question was deleted too.