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China removes Li Shangfu as Defence Minister after missing for two months without explanation

Li is believed to be a close confidante of Xi and his and foreign foreign minister Qin Gang's disappearance puzzled people and raised question on Xi's governance. As per rumours by the US Ambassador to Japan, Li may have been put under house arrest.

Aveek Banerjee Edited By: Aveek Banerjee @AveekABanerjee Beijing Updated on: October 24, 2023 19:29 IST
Li Shangfu was made China's Defence Minister in March 2023.
Image Source : AP Li Shangfu was made China's Defence Minister in March 2023.

China on Tuesday replaced Defence Minister Li Shangfu, who has been missing for two months without much explanation, according to the state media. He is the second senior Chinese official to disappear after former foreign minister Qin Gang.

Li was last seen giving a speech on August 29 and has not been seen since. There is no indication that the disappearances of Li and Qin signal a change in China's foreign or defense policies, although they have raised questions about the resilience of President Xi Jinping's power.

Li is believed to be a close confidante of Xi and his absence from a meeting with senior Vietnamese defence officials on September 7 and 8 heightened speculations over his disappearance. 

He was conspicuously missing from the military meeting held last month, according to footage aired by Chinese state broadcaster CCTV. The CMC and the Communist Party of China (CPC) are headed by Xi himself.

"I'm not aware of the situation." said ministry spokesperson Mao Ning at that time, when Li became the second high-ranking Chinese official after former Foreign Minister Qin Gang to make an unexplained absence from public view.

Speculations on Li's disappearance

According to reports citing American officials, Li has been placed under investigation, although the nature of the investigation was not stated. The Wall Street Journal has also reported that the missing defence minister was taken away for questioning, according to a person close to decision-making in Beijing.

Meanwhile, the US Ambassador to Japan Rahm Emanuel questioned whether the Communist regime had placed him under house arrest, adding that he had not been for the past three weeks and was also absent from his scheduled trip to Vietnam.

Li's disappearance comes after two leaders of a unit managing China's nuclear arsenal have been replaced in one of the biggest unplanned re-jigging in Beijing's military leadership, fuelling speculations of a purge. General Li Yuchao, who previously led the People Liberation Army's (PLA) Rocket unit, and his deputy General Liu Guangbin, also mysteriously disappeared for months.

The sudden disappearances of these two officials - Li and Qin - have puzzled people as they were considered close confidants of Xi and were handpicked by the President himself for the top posts. Their disappearance has raised questions about Xi's governance as he enforces strict party discipline.

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 the US over trade, technology and Taiwan.

It is not the first time that the country's prominent people have gone missing abruptly. Recently, billionaire Jack Ma also disappeared and reappeared after criticising Xi Jinping. However, it is very rare that top government officials went missing in such an abrupt way. 

Who is Li Shangfu?

The Chinese defence minister is an aerospace engineer who began his career at a satellite and rocket launch centre in China. Li was reportedly a favourite of Xi, and had a smooth ascent through the ranks of the military and Chinese political elite.

Before becoming the defence minister, Li was head of the CMC’s Equipment Development Department in charge of weapon procurement for five years. He was sanctioned by the US in 2018 for his alleged involvement in the purchase of Russian weapons by China. Li also refused to meet his American counterpart Llypd Austin at a defence summit in Singapore earlier this year.

China has since cut off contacts with the US military, mainly in protest over US arm sales to Taiwan, but also strongly implying that Washington must lift the measures against Li, which Beijing refuses to publicly recognise.

He last travelled outside China in mid-August on a trip to Russia and Belarus after his key-note address at a security forum with African nations.

(with agencies input)

ALSO READ | China's 'missing' Defence Minister absent from top military meeting, speculations rise over his removal

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