Three weeks after he was last seen publicly, there is still no official confirmation of what happened to Gen. Li Shangfu, China’s defense minister and the last senior official apparently drawn into China’s political purges.
Last week, Reuters reported that Li, along with eight other senior officials, were under investigation for corrupt acquisition of military equipment in connection with his tenure as head of the Military Commission’s equipment division central, the governing body of the military, between September 2017. and October 2022. American intelligence services have also drawn similar conclusions.
But Beijing declined to comment on Li’s fate. At a Foreign Ministry news conference Monday, spokesman Mao Ning declined to answer a question about Li, saying it was “not a matter of not a diplomatic question.” But several scheduled meetings between Li and foreign defense officials have already been canceled, with the status of future meetings uncertain.
Li’s disappearance is particularly notable because he was only appointed in March. Like Qin Gang, the former foreign minister replaced in July, he is in difficulty less than a year after being propelled to the upper echelons by Xi Jinping, the Chinese leader.
Xi, who took power in 2012, has made the fight against corruption his flagship policy. But he has now been in power long enough to replace virtually all party members at the party’s highest levels with allies and loyalists, said Steve Tsang, director of the SOAS China Institute. “So whoever he eliminates now will be a protégé of Xi.”
Some analysts wonder how corruption at the highest levels of the People’s Liberation Army – the military wing of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) – could be even more possible after more than a decade of Xi’s military presidency. But the anti-corruption campaign has always been focused on rectifying the party as much as fighting corruption, Tsang said, meaning no one is safe from its reach.
“High-level disappearances are bad for the party but they are not unexpected,” said Olivia Cheung, a researcher at the SOAS China Institute. The party “constantly seeks and rids itself of impure elements within itself, even if it is painful… The underlying idea is that short-term damage to the party’s image and elite cohesion is a cost to pay to build a party. a disciplined and effective party in the long term.
In July, the Department of Military Equipment issued a rare public notice saying it was investigating corruption related to the bidding process and the formation of private cliques, dating back to 2017. Last month, two top generals in China’s Rocket Force in charge of the nuclear arsenal have been replaced, in what has been interpreted as an attempt to break up patronage networks in the all-important PLA division.
Li’s tenure as head of the military equipment division also drew sanctions from Washington, which accused him of being involved in purchasing weapons from Russia’s largest arms exporter. Beijing strongly opposes the use of sanctions and those imposed on Li were cited as a reason why he snubbed his US counterpart Lloyd Austin in Singapore in June. Military dialogue between the United States and China has been largely frozen since Nancy Pelosi, then Speaker of the House of Representatives, visited Taiwan in August last year.
Some analysts believe that Li’s being subject to U.S. sanctions may have boosted his career, as Beijing could use his position as defense minister to call for sanctions to be lifted if Washington wanted to resume US-level dialogues. defense ministers.
This may explain why Li, whose background is in logistics rather than combat, was appointed to this senior military post. Li’s sudden disappearance also speaks to the opaque – and perhaps flawed – selection process that senior appointments are subject to under Xi’s regime. As the CCP has moved away from the collective leadership of a decade ago and toward Xi’s centralized rule, questioning Xi’s judgment becomes increasingly dangerous. “Once Xi Jinping has made his decision about someone, the selection process must be patriotic,” Tsang said.
All eyes will now be on the Xiangshan Forum, a defense meeting scheduled for next month. China’s defense minister would normally speak at the conference, which was last held in person in 2019. If Li does not materialize, Beijing may be forced to announce a new, less two months after the new Minister of Foreign Affairs takes office.
Additional research from Tau Yang