China announces the removal of defense minister missing for almost two months with little explanation

The disappearances of Li Shangfu and the former Foreign Minister Qin Gang have raised questions about the resilience of president Xi Jinping’s circle of power

Li Shangfu
China's Defence Minister Li Shangfu attends the 20th IISS Shangri-La Dialogue in Singapore June 2, 2023.CAROLINE CHIA (REUTERS)

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China has replaced Defense Minister Gen. Li Shangfu, who has been out of public view for almost two months, state media reported Tuesday. No further information was given. Li is the second senior Chinese official to disappear this year, following former Foreign Minister Qin Gang, who was removed from office in July with no explanation offered.

Li, who became defense minister during a Cabinet reshuffle in March, hasn’t been seen since giving a speech on Aug. 29. There is no indication that the disappearances of Qin and Li signal a change in China’s foreign or defense policies, although they have raised questions about the resilience of president and ruling Communist Party leader Xi Jinping’s circle of power.

Xi has a reputation for valuing loyalty above all and has relentlessly attacked corruption in public and private, sometimes in what has been seen as a method of eliminating political rivals and shoring up his political position amid a deteriorating economy and rising tensions with U.S. over trade, technology and Taiwan.

Li is under U.S. sanctions related to his overseeing weapon purchases from Russia that bar him from entering the country. China has since cut off contacts with the U.S. military, mainly in protest over U.S. arm sales to Taiwan, but also strongly implying that Washington must lift the measures against Li, which Beijing refuses to publicly recognize.

The announcement from state broadcaster CCTV said that both Li and Qin had been removed from the State Council, China’s Cabinet and the center of government power. That virtually assures the end of their political careers, although it remains unclear whether they will face prosecution or other legal sanctions.

CCTV also announced Lan Fo’an’s new appointment as finance minister, and Yin He’jun as science and technology minister. China’s political and legal systems remain highly opaque, fueling lively discussion of possible corruption, personal foibles or fallings-out with other powerful figures leading to the downfall of top officials.

Along with dealing with what appear to be internal political issues, the ruling party is struggling to revive an economy that has been severely impacted by the draconian “zero-Covid” measures, an aging population, high unemployment among college graduates and a movement of many of its wealthiest and best educated to more liberal societies abroad.

Having had his ideology, known as “Xi Jinping Thought,” enshrined in the party constitution and with the abolishment of presidential term limits, Xi has structured the system so that he may stay in power for the rest of his life. The 70-year-old also heads the party and state committees overseeing the People’s Liberation Army, the world’s largest standing military with more than 2 million personnel on active duty.

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