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24 October 2023

Disappearing ministers show the strength – and weakness – of Xi’s regime

Less than three months after China’s foreign minister vanished, the defence minister has been sacked.

By Katie Stallard

Editor’s note: On 24 October, Chinese state media reported that Li Shangfu had been officially removed as defence minister. Qin Gang, who was sacked as foreign minister in July, was also stripped of his position as state councilor. No explanation was given in either case.

A mysterious health crisis appears to be sweeping the upper ranks of the Chinese government. First, it was Qin Gang, China’s foreign minister, who vanished this summer after less than six months in the job. Following his last public meeting on 25 June, the foreign ministry began cancelling his upcoming engagements, announcing on 11 July that Qin would not attend a summit in Indonesia due to “health reasons”. Two weeks later Chinese state media reported that Qin had been replaced as foreign minister, but no further explanation was given, and he has not been seen in public since. Now, China’s defence minister has disappeared.

The first rumours that Li Shangfu might be in trouble began circulating on 7 September, when the US ambassador to Japan, Rahm Emanuel, noted on Twitter that he had not appeared in public for two weeks. “President Xi’s cabinet lineup is now resembling Agatha Christie’s novel And Then There Were None,” Emanuel wrote. On 14 September Reuters reported that Li, 65, had pulled out of a meeting with defence officials in Vietnam because of a “health condition”. The next day US officials told the Wall Street Journal that he was being removed from his position and had reportedly been detained for questioning.

Li Shangfu, the Chinese defence minister, is said to have been detained for questioning.
Photo by Britta Pedersen/dpa/Alamy

No one with even a passing familiarity with Chinese politics believes that the disappearance of these two senior officials has anything to do with their health. In the case of Qin, 57, his abrupt removal was accompanied by rumours of an affair with a television presenter based in Hong Kong during his tenure as China’s ambassador to the US, where he was posted until his promotion to foreign minister in December 2022. The inability of his foreign ministry colleagues to answer questions about his absence, along with the erasure of all references to Qin from the ministry’s website on the day his removal was announced (some entries were later restored) only fuelled the sense that his real difficulties were political.

Li’s case may be more complicated, and more consequential. In late July, shortly after replacing Qin, Xi Jinping announced a campaign targeting corruption in the military. He cited “prominent problems that persist at party organisations on all levels” and the need to ensure the Communist Party’s “absolute leadership over the military”. (Unlike in many countries, the People’s Liberation Army swears loyalty to the party first, rather than the state, in keeping with Mao Zedong’s dictum that “the party commands the gun”.)

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[See also: Resolving US-China tensions requires more than just superpower diplomacy]

Around the same time, Xi replaced General Li Yuchao, commander of the People’s Liberation Army’s Rocket Force, which maintains the country’s land-based nuclear missiles, and General Liu Guangbin, his deputy. Both men had been missing for several months and were rumoured to be under investigation for alleged corruption, although this has not been confirmed. The army’s equipment development department also announced a crackdown on abuses in procurement and appealed to the public for tips dating back to 2017. Li Shangfu oversaw the department from 2017 to 2022. (He was sanctioned by the US in 2018 over the purchase of combat aircraft from Russia while in this role.)

Anti-corruption purges have been a consistent – and broadly popular – feature of Xi’s rule since he first became general secretary of the Chinese Communist Party in 2012, enabling him to take down political rivals in the process. But Xi has now been in power for more than a decade. It is becoming harder to argue that he is tackling the excesses of an old, corrupt system when he has been in charge of that system for so long. The intrigue surrounding Li, an aerospace engineer and technocrat who had worked on China’s space and cyber-warfare programs, along with the Rocket Force generals, also raises questions about Xi’s ability to deliver on his promise to complete the country’s military modernisation by 2027.  

Then there is the fact that Xi only recently appointed, or at least approved the appointments of, both Qin and Li, who were promoted to their ministerial roles in December 2022 and March this year respectively. Their apparent downfall in such short order hardly reflects well on Xi’s judgement, or his access to reliable information about the senior officials serving under him. Equally, the spectacle of China’s disappearing ministers does little to reassure their foreign counterparts that they are building valuable relationships for the future when past interlocutors have vanished without trace.

This does not mean that Xi’s grip on power is becoming more tenuous. If anything, the signal these developments send to others within the Chinese political elite is that nobody is safe, no matter how senior. As with the aftermath of Yevgeny Prigozhin’s demise in Russia, there may be many within the upper ranks of the regime who are unnerved by the current direction of travel, but the chances of them voicing that disquiet are now vanishingly small.

Still, China’s already opaque political system is only becoming less transparent to the outside world. And at a time when Beijing faces considerable domestic challenges, such as a slowing economy, rising youth unemployment, and a looming property market crisis, the effect of these disappearances will not be to inspire creative solutions and bold policy ideas, but rather to focus the efforts of officials throughout the system on demonstrating their loyalty to the boss.

[See also: Britain is asking the wrong questions about China]

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