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Ling Jihua, newly elected vice chairman of the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC), pauses while attending the opening ceremony of the CPPCC at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing March 3, 2013. REUTERS/Jason Lee

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By Ben Blanchard

BEIJING (Reuters) - China's state prosecutor on Friday formally charged a former senior aide to retired president Hu Jintao with taking bribes, illegally obtaining state secrets and abuse of power.

The ruling Communist Party announced an investigation into Ling Jihua in December 2014. He had been demoted in September 2012 from a ministerial-level job months after his son was killed in a crash involving a luxury sports car.

The charges are the latest development in a case that the party has said did major damage to its image.

Ling used his many high-ranking positions in government as a way to solicit bribes, seek favours for friends and illegally obtain state secrets, the prosecutor said, without specifying the nature of the secrets.

The circumstances were "extremely serious", the prosecutor added in a terse statement that was also read on state television.

Ling's case was lodged at a court in the port city of Tianjin, not far from Beijing, meaning he will be tried there.

It has not been possible to reach Ling for comment.

The prosecutor said authorities had informed Ling about his rights in line with the law, questioned him and heard "opinions" from his lawyer.

It was not clear who the lawyer is, or if he was appointed for Ling by the party.

Ling's case presents a dilemma for the government, because of his close connection with former president Hu, President Xi Jinping's predecessor.

A government spokesman denied last year that Hu was being implicated in the investigation and sources have told Reuters Hu approved of it.

The formal charges pave the way for a criminal trial, but because Ling is accused of stealing state secrets, the proceedings may be closed to the public.

It is also unclear when a trial could be held. If it is held in secret, state media could simply announce a verdict.

The government said last July it would prosecute Ling, and that he had been expelled from the Communist Party.

A brother, Ling Zhengce, also faces a corruption investigation. Other family members have been detained, state media have said.

Another brother, Ling Wancheng, is in the United States, and China in January said it was communicating with the United States about him.

In February, Ling Wancheng denied through his U.S. attorney that he handed state secrets to U.S. authorities.

Since taking power in 2012, Xi has waged war on corruption, taking down many opponents, including the once-powerful domestic security tsar Zhou Yongkang. Zhou was also tried in Tianjin.

The Communist Party controls courts in China.

(Additional reporting by Megha Rajagopalan; Editing by Clarence Fernandez)

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