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What is happening with China’s missing Defense Minister?

What is happening with China’s missing Defense Minister?

The absence of Chinese Defense Minister Li Shangfu from public view has extended for a period of three weeks, sparking growing speculation that he may be the subject of an internal investigation conducted by the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) secretive internal security apparatus.

Speculation began circulating last week and gained momentum when Li failed to attend a crucial military gathering on September 15.

Official information regarding Li’s whereabouts remains absent, but unconfirmed reports from anonymous sources in China and high-ranking U.S. officials suggest that the defense minister has been taken into custody and is expected to be formally relieved of his duties.

It is not uncommon for Chinese officials to fall from grace periodically.

As an example from this year, consider Cui Maohu, the former head of the National Religious Affairs Administration, who was placed under investigation in March and subsequently expelled from the CCP last month. However, Li’s disappearance follows closely on the heels of the highly publicized vanishing act of former Foreign Minister Qin Gang, who was officially removed from his position in late July after an extended period of absence, with no official announcement regarding any investigations involving him.

The next likely step in the cases of Qin and Li could involve their expulsion from the party, although this typically occurs months after the commencement of an investigation. Subsequently, they may face criminal charges. However, due to the absence of an independent judicial system in China, the ultimate decisions regarding their fates will be made behind closed doors during CCP meetings.

The Wall Street Journal reported on Tuesday that senior Chinese officials were informed that Qin’s removal was linked to an extramarital affair with an unnamed woman, which resulted in the birth of a child in the United States. Nevertheless, it is probable that the affair alone was not the sole reason for his downfall. Qin’s vulnerability to U.S. pressure appears to be the primary factor, as suggested by the Journal, and he is under investigation on national security grounds rather than moral ones.

Concurrently, Li’s case is likely connected to ongoing investigations into military corruption in China, particularly within the procurement process. Li’s career was shaped at the main satellite launch center of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA), which seemingly ties his case to purges within the PLA Rocket Force in July. Furthermore, Li played a role in shaping China’s military hardware agreements with Russia following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, as well as in the broader expansion of Beijing’s arms trade. Both of these situations presented opportunities for substantial corruption within an already corrupt military establishment.

It appears unlikely that these two cases are part of a conspiracy against Chinese President Xi Jinping. In China, the defense minister and foreign minister do not hold as much power as their counterparts in other countries. Nevertheless, the fall of two high-ranking ministers within six months of their appointments by Xi will raise questions about the president’s judgment, potentially fueling his concerns regarding China’s security. This, in turn, could lead to further purges orchestrated by Xi, utilizing the CCP’s disciplinary mechanisms to safeguard his own position. Consequently, it is conceivable that more purges will follow.


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