Questions swirl around Xi’s motives after a second top minister disappears in China

Chinese Defence Minister Li Shangfu has not been seen in public for more than two weeks. The disappearance of this top official close to President Xi Jinping comes two months after that of now-former foreign affairs minister Qin Gang, and follows the dismissal of a pair of influential military generals. For some observers, Li’s vanishing is likely linked to corruption, while others see it as a sign of intense political battles hidden from outside eyes.

Where is Chinese Defence Minister Li Shangfu? The top military official has not been heard from in more than two weeks, as noted by the Financial Times in an article published on Friday. 

The general last appeared in public at the third China-Africa Peace and Security Forum in Beijing on August 29. Li had not left China since a trip to Moscow and Minsk earlier that month. 

Beijing is keeping quiet about the disappearance. The only official clue emerged when Vietnamese authorities said that Li’s ministry last week cancelled his trip to Hanoi for “health reasons”. 

But sources in Washington offered a different explanation. Speaking to the Financial Times on condition of anonymity, several US officials said that Li could be the target of a corruption investigation, which could have prompted Chinese authorities to discreetly remove the defence minister from his post just six months after his appointment by President Xi.

Reuters reported on Friday that Li is under investigation by Chinese authorities, citing 10 people described as being familiar with the matter.

Beijing seems to have undertaken a summer clean-up in the ranks of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA).

“There are signs that a vast anti-corruption campaign is ongoing targeting the PLA,” said Carlotta Rinaudo, a China specialist at the International Team for the Study of Security (ITSS) Verona. 

In July, Xi himself announced the dismissal of two officials from the PLA’s Rocket Force, a military branch responsible for the development of highly strategic ballistic missiles. 

In early September, the president of the army’s military court was sacked. Beijing did not give an official reason for this “unexpected shakeup”

However, when it comes to China’s armed forces, corruption is still the chief suspect.

“PLA corruption has been a problem since China opened to the world, economically, in the 1980s”, said sinologist Marc Lanteigne of the Arctic University of Norway. “Going back 20 years, there has been scandal about generals getting rich by selling access and influence.”  

‘No one is safe’

Since he came to power in 2012, Xi has made the fight against corruption in the military’s ranks an absolute priority. “He is obsessed with fighting corruption in the PLA,”, said Rinaudo.  

“When Xi Jinping’s father was rehabilitated, it helped him land a job as a mishu. It’s a Chinese term that means literally a ‘book of secrets’ and [designates a] personal assistant who has access” to a military general’s “secrets”, she explained, referencing the purging and later return to favour of Xi’s father Xi Zhongxun.

“It was a perfect spot to see the extent of the corruption in the PLA.”

The recent clean-up – including the defence minister’s disappearance – could be the latest manifestation of Xi’s anti-corruption crusade. 

The fact that the president did not hesitate to let go of a minister he had appointed in March who “certainly is seen as a Xi loyalist”, as Lanteigne said, would appear to demonstrate the president’s determination.  

“No one is safe,” said Rinaudo. 

She said that Li’s profile also fits in well with a major corruption case in the military.

“Around 2017-2018, he worked for the equipment development department, which … is considered one of the most corrupt because of the huge amount of money they have access to,” she said. 

However, Li’s disappearance doesn’t fit neatly within the narrative of a major anti-corruption effort – China’s president has never been discreet in his fight against corruption in the military. “It’s an accomplishment he is very proud of,” said Lanteigne. 

It is possible that Xi has opted for silence because he doesn’t want to draw too much media attention to a matter that tarnishes a man who is supposed to be close to him.

“It really calls into question the control Xi Jinping has on his inner circle and his ability to pick the right person,” said Lanteigne. 

But Li’s disappearance also recalls another recent episode at the highest level of the state. In July, former foreign minister Qin Gang also disappeared – for more a month. Qin was officially sacked at the end of that month without any reason being given. The ex-minister has not reappeared since. 

After the wave of disappearances of billionaires and business leaders in recent years, it could be the turn of senior political officials. The recent silent sackings reflect major “infighting between administrations or even factions” in China’s government, said Lanteigne. The behind-the-scenes cacophony conflicts with the image of control that Xi exercises on his government. 

Anxiety, not strength 

But the political situation in China has been tense since the end of Beijing’s “zero Covid” policy, which was preceded by demonstrations “that took the government by surprise because of how strong they were”, said Lanteigne. The dismissals are “maybe a reaction to the impression of a loss of control by Xi over the situation”, he said. 

“In a way, getting rid of a loyalist is a demonstration of strength from Xi,” said Rinaudo. 

Internationally, the disappearances create an impression of anxiety rather than strength, according to both experts interviewed by FRANCE 24. US Ambassador to Japan Rahm Emanuel even poked fun at the situation, comparing it to mystery writer Agatha Christie’s novel “And Then There Were None”, in which one character after another disappears. 

“Both of these ministers are responsible for projecting power outside of the country,” said Lanteigne. “The impression that there is some internal turmoil behind this is not helping the government to demonstrate China is in a position to play an active role on the world stage.”

From a diplomatic point of view, “it’s creating some doubt about who is in charge for foreign diplomacy”, said Rinaudo. 

However, the likely isolation of the defence minister could ultimately benefit Beijing. Since 2018, Li has been on the list of people targeted by US sanctions for having sold military equipment to Russian entities that were sanctioned by the US.

“Having a defence minister on a Washington sanction list was a bad thing for [China-US] relations,” said Rinaudo. “Now that he is gone, it could ease the tensions.” 

What’s more, Li “is a hawk who was very aggressive … about China’s territorial dispute and relations with the West”, said Lanteigne. For the Arctic University professor, the appointment of his successor will be a very good indicator of Xi’s state of mind. If the new defence minister is a moderate, it could be a sign that Beijing wants to improve its relations with Washington. 

This article is a translation of the original in French. 

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