China’s Defense Minister Has Been Removed From Post, U.S. Officials Say

According to a source close to Beijing’s decision-making, Chinese Defense Minister Li Shangfu was detained by authorities last week for questioning; nevertheless, U.S. sources claim he is being fired from his position.

Since the end of August, Li hasn’t been in the media. The U.S. officials based their conclusion that he had been let out of his responsibilities on unnamed intelligence.

China's Defense Minister Has Been Removed From Post, U.S. Officials Say
China’s Defense Minister Has Been Removed From Post, U.S. Officials Say

An inquiry for comment sent through the State Council Information Office, which responds to media queries on behalf of the government, was not immediately answered by China’s Ministry of Defense.

After years of leader Xi Jinping’s campaign to shake up China’s military, known as the People’s Liberation Army, with anticorruption purges and structural changes, one U.S. official claimed that the controversy surrounding Li spoke to fundamental problems that Beijing continues to struggle with.

One official from the United States stated that “some of the PLA’s enduring problems may be too big for Xi to solve, and they have a real impact on the PLA’s ability to achieve what he wants them to.” “We are aware that corruption in the PLA is pervasive enough to play a role in this. And we are aware that it has significantly impacted both what they can do and how they go about doing it.

The mysterious abduction of Li, 65, is similar to previous disappearances of other prominent officials. Beijing swiftly fired Qin Gang as foreign minister in July after he mysteriously disappeared a month earlier. Days later, Xi replaced a general who had not been seen in public for months as the head of China’s strategic missile force.

Li, the defense minister, mostly manages military diplomacy and is not in charge of combat operations.

The mystery surrounding Li and other missing government workers has raised new concerns about China’s governance under Xi, whose Communist Party has increased secrecy and thwarted attempts by outsiders to gain access to information on the second-largest economy in the world.

China's Defense Minister Has Been Removed From Post, U.S. Officials Say

Foreign diplomats and China specialists have taken note of Li’s absence, and some have publicly speculated on what may have happened to other high Chinese officials who have vanished recently.

Rahm Emanuel, the U.S. ambassador to Japan, claimed in a post on X, the social media website that replaced Twitter, on September 8 that Xi’s administration was starting to resemble an Agatha Christie story.

Emanuel wrote with the hashtag “#MysteryInBeijingBuilding,” “First, Foreign Minister Qin Gang goes missing, then the Rocket Force commanders go missing, and now Defense Minister Li Shangfu hasn’t been seen in public for two weeks.”

Emanuel continued the discussion over Li’s disappearance on Friday with another post.

He wrote, “Something is corrupt in the state of Denmark, as Shakespeare wrote in Hamlet.

Li’s removal would make him the first sitting official to be removed in recent years from the Central Military Commission of the Communist Party, which is presided over by Xi and governs the armed forces. Fang Fenghui, a CMC member and the department’s chief at the time, vanished from the public eye in 2017, was dismissed from the party the following year, and was given a life sentence for corruption in 2019.

China's Defense Minister Has Been Removed From Post, U.S. Officials Say

Li last made an appearance in the media on August 29 when he spoke in Beijing at a symposium on China-African security.

Li was scheduled to speak at and attend China’s next Xiangshan Forum, a prestigious security gathering in Beijing that attracts defense secretaries and military leaders. The event this year, which would be the first substantial in-person gathering since the Covid-19 outbreak, is planned for late October, according to persons with knowledge of the situation.

According to official biographies and state media reports, Li, the son of a revolutionary soldier, followed in his father’s footsteps by entering the Communist Party in 1980 and the PLA two years later. He is a trained engineer who worked for three decades at the Xichang Satellite Launch Center in southwest China. Eventually, he rose to the position of center director and oversaw the facility’s initial launches of lunar exploration missions under the Chang’e program.

Li assumed leadership of the Central Military Commission’s Equipment Development Department in 2017. Due to Li’s role in coordinating China’s acquisition of combat aircraft and missile technology from Russia, Washington has imposed sanctions on him since 2018.

In October 2022, Li was chosen to be one of the seven members of the Central Military Commission. Then, in March, he was appointed China’s defense minister and given the title of state councilor, a position of prominence in the executive branch.

About a month prior to Li’s final public appearance, in late July, the Equipment Development Department published a notice in which it announced it was cracking down on illegal activity dating back to October 2017 in the equipment procurement and tendering processes. It also requested public tips.

China's Defense Minister Has Been Removed From Post, U.S. Officials Say

Li oversaw the division from 2017 to 2022.

Li continues to be one of the 205 full members of the party’s Central Committee, according to party officials. Li was still listed as the defense minister and a member of the State Council on the websites of the Chinese Ministry of National Defense and the State Council as of Friday.

In a hastily called session on July 25, China’s legislature fired Qin as foreign minister and replaced him with Wang Yi, the party’s senior diplomat, who had previously held the position from December 2013 to 2022. As on Friday, Qin was still listed as a state councilor on the State Council website.

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