Missing Defence Minister brings spotlight to Xi’s purges

Two months after Foreign Minister Qin Gang disappeared without explanation from public view, reports now suggest that Defence Minister Li Shangfu had been detained over ongoing corruption investigations

Updated - September 15, 2023 09:23 pm IST

Published - September 15, 2023 09:22 pm IST

Chinese Defence Minister Li Shangfu delivers a speech at XI Moscow conference on international security in the Moscow region, Russia, August 15, 2023. Credit: Russian Defence Ministry/Handout via REUTERS

Chinese Defence Minister Li Shangfu delivers a speech at XI Moscow conference on international security in the Moscow region, Russia, August 15, 2023. Credit: Russian Defence Ministry/Handout via REUTERS | Photo Credit: VIA REUTERS

China’s Defence Minister Li Shangfu has become the latest senior Chinese official caught up in swirling political rumours, with reports on Friday suggesting that the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) General had been detained over on-going corruption investigations.

Only in July, China’s Foreign Minister Qin Gang, who had been appointed in March, disappeared without explanation from public view for several weeks before a brief announcement declared he had been removed from the post. Three months on, there still hasn’t been any explanation over the reasons behind the sudden removal of one of the most prominent public faces of the Xi Jinping government, who also served as one of five State Councillors – the third highest position in the executive branch of government behind the Premier and Vice Premiers.

On Friday, reports said Mr. Li – who is also one of the five State Councillors – had been detained over ongoing corruption investigations into the military’s Rocket Force – formerly the Second Artillery Corps – which has already seen several senior officials placed under investigation. Mr. Li was the first Chinese Defence Minister – who also serves on the Central Military Commission headed by Mr. Xi – who hailed from the Rocket Force.

While it remains unclear if the apparent removals of two of the most prominent ministers were linked, some of the purges in the Rocket Force were announced days after Mr. Qin’s removal.

Chinese officials on Friday declined to comment on the whereabouts of Mr. Li, who like Mr. Qin, disappeared suddenly from public view. Also as was in the case of Mr. Qin, Beijing explained his absence in diplomatic meetings to “health reasons”.

U.S. officials have said they believe Mr. Li to be in detention by authorities for questioning and to have been removed from his post, according to a Friday report in the Financial Times. Rahm Emanuel, the U.S. Ambassador to Japan, commented on the removals in a post on X (formerly Twitter) saying the political developments in Beijing under Mr. Xi were resembling the plot of an Agatha Christie novel. “First, Foreign Minister Qin Gang goes missing, then the Rocket Force commanders go missing, and now Defense Minister Li Shangfu hasn’t been seen in public for two weeks,” he wrote.

What is striking about both Mr. Qin and Mr. Li is they were handpicked and fast-tracked by Mr. Xi to their posts, and both barely lasted six months in their positions.

Mr. Li would become the first Central Military Commission (CMC) member to be removed in several years. Mr. Xi early in his term oversaw the purge of two of the PLA’s highest-ranking Generals on the CMC, and later removed a third, with most observers suggesting the purges had firmly established Mr. Xi’s centralised control over a military that had, under his predecessors, functioned as a state-within-a-state with widespread corruption.

Mr. Xi, now in a precedent-defying third term, has been widely seen as the most powerful leader since Mao Zedong and as having eliminated all political rivals and challenges. The continuing purges, however, suggest otherwise, even if the black box of Chinese politics leaves observers with little information to ascertain what is unfolding behind the scenes.

If those early removals reflected a battle being waged to establish control over the military, the latest cases are more puzzling. Yet another removal of one of the PLA’s highest ranking Generals would suggest serious unresolved issues regarding Mr. Xi’s control over the military, which has been the target of several sweeping corruption investigations during his decade at the helm.

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