Chinese Defense Minister Li Shangfu vanished from public view more than two weeks ago, missing several important events, including a bilateral defense meeting with Vietnam and talks with Singapore.
Reuters quoted sources on Friday who said Li is under investigation for corruption and might be under detention, house arrest, or orders to keep a low profile.
According to Reuters, Li and eight other officials are under investigation by the Chinese military’s disciplinary committee for unspecified irregularities in bidding for military contracts.
An important clue pointing to Li’s fate was a notice issued in July by China’s military procurement unit, inviting the public to report “irregularities” from October 2017 onward so the military bidding process could be “cleaned up.” Li was in charge of the procurement unit until October 2022.
The Chinese Defense Ministry began making ominous comments about its “zero tolerance for corruption” shortly before Li disappeared. Li made his last known public appearance in Beijing on August 29, a few weeks after the Defense Ministry announced its determination to “win the hard and protracted battle against corruption.”
Another possibility is that Li was removed to clear up a diplomatic logjam with the United States. Li has been under U.S. sanctions since September 2018 for purchasing weapons from a prohibited Russian company called Rosoboronexport, which was itself sanctioned in 2015 for violating nonproliferation agreements and missile technology export controls.
Reuters noted that Beijing has “repeatedly said it wants those sanctions dropped to facilitate better discussions between the Chinese and U.S. militaries,” but the U.S. government has refused to do so, making it difficult for Li to interface with top American defense officials.
Three U.S. officials told the Financial Times (FT) on Thursday they believe Li has been “stripped of his responsibilities as defense minister,” much like former Foreign Minister Qin Gang, whose weird and awkward disappearance occurred a month before the regime in Beijing officially sacked him in July.
Another similarity is that Chinese operatives explained Qin’s failure to appear at important events with vague excuses about a “health condition,” and on Thursday, they offered the same excuse to Vietnam when Li was a no-show at the scheduled bilateral summit.
Reuters felt the vanishings of Li and Qin were especially bizarre because both were handpicked proteges of dictator Xi Jinping, and both had been at their exceptionally prominent posts for less than a year before they were whisked away.
FT also added the abrupt removal of the two top generals for the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) Rocket Force to the tally of sinister events in Beijing.
Xi replaced Gens. Li Yuchao and his deputy Liu Guangbin at the beginning of August, curiously swapping them out for naval and air force officers who had no experience in the Rocket Force. China’s long-range and nuclear missile force has never before been commanded by officers from other branches of the PLA.
Li Yuchao and Liu Guangbin also disappeared from public view months before they were stripped of their commands, and they were personal favorites of Xi Jinping before their sudden fall from grace, just like Qin and Li.
“High-level disappearances and possible corruption investigations are not a good look for Xi because he approved the selection of the current leadership,” Asia Society Policy Institute expert Neil Thomas observed to the BBC.
“Xi’s leadership and overall political stability do not appear under threat, as none of the cadres affected are part of his inner circle,” Thomas added.
Other analysts told the BBC it was rather embarrassing for Xi to be detaining so many of his personally selected high-ranking officials after ten years of ostensibly waging an epic war against corruption. Some wondered if Xi was making hasty and clumsy changes to top military leadership before he made some big moves in the South China Sea or against Taiwan.
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