China’s Defense Minister General Li Shangfu is under investigation, according to two US officials, fueling speculation of further unrest in the military following the abrupt removal of two top commanders in charge of the country’s nuclear force.
General Li has not been seen in public for more than two weeks. He was expected to participate in a meeting in Vietnam last week, but there was no word on his attendance. When reporters asked Friday about General Li’s whereabouts, Mao Ning, a spokeswoman for the Chinese Foreign Ministry, said she had no information.
The survey points to questions about Communist Party leader Xi Jinping’s confidence in his own military, a pillar of his ambitions abroad and his dominance at home.
Just six weeks ago, Mr Xi replaced the top two commanders of the People’s Liberation Army Rocket Force, which oversees China’s nuclear missiles. The abrupt dismissals suggested Mr Xi wanted to reassert his control over the military and purge perceived corruption, disloyalty and dysfunction from his ranks, analysts said.
Many experts believe the military commanders could be accused of corruption, although some have said there may be suspicions of disloyalty towards Mr Xi within the People’s Liberation Army (PL). In July, China also fired Foreign Minister Qin Gang – another official who had risen quickly under Mr Xi – without explanation. The two US officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said they believed General Li was under investigation on suspicion of corruption.
Mr Xi still appears politically untouchable, with the Communist Party leadership, military top brass and security services packed with loyalists. Yet the sudden demise of such senior officials has exposed the pitfalls in a system so dominated by a single leader, and has raised questions about Mr Xi’s judgment, as the officials under his supervision were promoted by him .
Su Tzu-yun, an expert on the People’s Liberation Army at the Institute for National Defense and Security Research, a Taipei think tank funded by the Taiwanese government, said he was more than 90 percent certain that General Li had been dropped off. his post.
“For Xi Jinping, this is a loss of face, and in the Chinese military and throughout China, people will notice it even if they do not say so openly,” Mr Su said. “It won’t force him from power, but it will erode his prestige as ruler.”
General Li, 65, was promoted to minister of national defense in March after joining the Central Military Commission, the council led by Mr Xi through which the party controls the military, late last year.
General Li’s last public appearance was in late August, when he spoke at a forum in Beijing attended by officials from African countries. It is not unusual for People’s Liberation Army commanders to remain out of the public spotlight, although the absence of the defense minister, as the army’s chief diplomat, is more notable.
The Reuters news agency reported on Friday, citing anonymous sources, that General Li did not attend scheduled talks with Vietnamese officials last week – an unusual absence that suggested something may have been wrong.
Officers may “sell in their colleagues in exchange for leniency, lest executives preemptively attack rivals,” said Drew Thompson, a former U.S. defense official who has long studied China’s military and is now a fellow at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy in Singapore . “Ideology and loyalty are the core issues, but anti-corruption is the tool used to achieve Xi’s end state and the party’s political security.”
For much of his career, General Li was deeply involved in the development and acquisition of the People’s Liberation Army’s growing range of missiles, rockets and other advanced weapons. He appeared to have Mr. Xi’s trust as a weapons expert who, like Mr. Xi, was the son of a veteran of Mao Zedong’s revolutionary forces.
An engineer by training, General Li has amassed a sparkling resume in rocketry, weapons development and the manned space program. He was appointed deputy commander of the Strategic Support Force, which Mr Xi established in late 2015 as part of a major reorganization of China’s military. The Strategic Support Force combines China’s efforts in new areas of military rivalry, such as space, cyber operations and espionage, advanced communications and psychological warfare.
In 2017, General Li was appointed director of the Chinese military’s Equipment Development Department, and it was his role there that made him a target of US government sanctions the following year. Citing his role in acquiring Russian fighter jets and surface-to-air missiles, Washington banned General Li from obtaining a US visa, among other things.
China has rejected invitations from the United States for talks between General Li and Defense Secretary Lloyd J. Austin III, saying the Biden administration must first lift sanctions.
“As the lyrics of a famous Chinese song go: when friends come to visit, bring out the good wine. When jackals and wolves come to visit, bring out the shotgun,” General Li said at an annual security meeting in Singapore this year.
The apparent official investigation into General Li raises questions about the fate of other senior Chinese officials, especially in the armaments and aviation sectors where he rose through the ranks.
General Ju Qiansheng, the commander of the People’s Liberation Army Strategic Support Force – where General Li previously served – has been out of the public eye for months and did not attend a reception for military officers in late July, raising the possibility that he may also be part of a research.
“I think the cases we’ve seen now are probably just the tip of the iceberg,” said Mr Su, the Taipei researcher. “The People’s Liberation Army’s weapons acquisition system is often related to the market, so the proportion of technical officers who get into trouble is quite high.”
Rahm Emanuel, the U.S. ambassador to Japan, who has adapted Mr. Xi on has skipped. the Group of 20 summit in India last week and other commitments.
In a post on X on Friday, Mr Emanuel asked whether General Li had been placed under house arrest.
“There’s just too much,” Mr. Emanuel said. “If you know the history of China, given all the economic and internal tensions, people are being arrested left and right.”
Motoko rich, Sui-Lee Wee And Erik Schmitt reporting contributed.