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Where is Chinese Defense Minister Li Shangfu?

Yuchen Li in Taipei
September 18, 2023

Political upheaval continues in China, with another major minister disappearing from public view. Questions over the fate of Defense Minister Li Shangfu could cast a negative light on the military and Xi Jinping.

Chinese Defense Minister Li Shangfu at the Shangri-La Dialogue in Singapore
Chinese Defense Minister Li Shangfu has not been seen in public since AugustImage: Vincent Thian/AP/picture alliance

The disappearance of Defense Minister Li Shangfu is the most recent case of apparent problems among the top echelons of China's political leadership.

Li, who was only appointed six months ago, has been out of public sight since August. The 65-year-old is believed to be the subject of a corruption investigation, a scenario which could end up reflecting poorly on Chinese President Xi Jinping.

Suspicions were first roused when Beijing suddenly called off Li's attendance at a September annual gathering in Vietnam, stating that the minister had a "health condition."

Then reports from Western media further fueled the debates over Li's status.

Citing officials from the United States, The Financial Times reported that Li is believed to be under investigation. The Wall Street Journal cited a Beijing insider saying that Li had been detained two weeks ago for questioning.

With speculation continually piling up, experts believe it could lead to public questioning of China's military stability and Xi's leadership choices.

Under the cloud of corruption

Last week, anonymous sources told Reuters news agency that the reasons behind Li's disappearance could be related to the procurement of military equipment.

On his journey through the ranks, Li ran the Equipment Development Department (EDD) from 2017 to 2022. Last month, Chinese authorities announced an investigation into cases of corruption dating back to six years ago.

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"It's not a good look for China and for [President] Xi," Lyle Morris, a senior fellow at the Asia Society Policy Institute's Center for China Analysis, told DW.

Li's absence comes as Beijing has been increasingly throwing its military weight around in the South China Sea and close to Taiwana democratically run island claimed by China.

It also followed a 2017 speech in which Xi called for a full advancement of the People's Liberation Army (PLA), aiming to build the army into "world-class forces" that can "fight and win" wars.

But with the leader of the PLA now submerged in accusations of corruption, "it makes Xi look like he doesn't have complete awareness of what his leaders are doing," Morris said.

Prior to Li, a massive leadership reshuffle shook the PLA's rocket forces, with two top leaders and several officials being removed from their posts in August. Experts believe it was part of Xi's massive anti-corruption campaign.

Although it is unlikely to have an immediate impact on China's military capabilities, the leadership shift suggests "instability" and "lack of professionalism" in the army.

Consolidation of Xi's power

However, some experts hold the opposite opinion, claiming that the crackdown on Li indicates Xi's ever-increasing power over the military.

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Lin Ying-Yu, an assistant professor at Taiwan's Tamkang University of Strategic Studies, told DW: "People may question his [Xi's] personnel decisions from the outside, but inside China, you can only follow what Xi Jinping says."

By shaking up the military leadership, Xi can appoint new generals who are "more obedient and loyal," Lin noted.

Aside from the graft claims, intelligence leaks and power struggles may also be behind Li's recent absence, according to analysts.

Lin described China's political landscape as an "original jungle" where many are vying for a higher position, but the key to such positions is simply "following the directives of the central authority."

A slogan that reads, "Follow the Party; fight to win; forge exemplary conduct," can be commonly heard bellowed from the soldiers within the Chinese military. It is one of the principles that aim to strengthen the army.

Foreign leaders left in the dark

At time of writing, Li is still listed as China's defense minister on official government websites.

But many observers expect Li to be removed from his current position in the near future. China's former foreign minister Qin Gang was sacked in July without a clear explanation after similarly vanishing from public sight for nearly a month.

Next month, Li is due to show up at a major international defense and security conference in Beijing, the Xiangshan Forum.

The current lack of clarity over who is, or will be, the public face of China's military has "put other foreign leaders in an awkward spot," according to Morris, leaving them to wonder what happened to the man they had been trying to get in contact with.

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In June, Li, who has been sanctioned by the US, refused to hold military talks with his US counterpart Lloyd Austin during the Shangri-La dialogue.

But China expert Lin pointed out that Li and Xi, whose fathers previously worked together for the Chinese Communist Party, are both considered part of "the second generation of Reds."

Xi has rarely completely rooted out or put the successors of retired party officials in custody during previous purges.

Given his connections, Lin expected the minister to be simply demoted or removed from the frontline military position but added that "Li's final outcome is still yet to be observed."

Edited by: Alex Berry