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

Li's name still figures as a defence minister, CMC member and state councillor at the Chinese government and military websites, despite his mysterious disappearance over two weeks ago.

Aveek Banerjee Edited By: Aveek Banerjee Beijing Published on: September 16, 2023 17:22 IST
Chinese Defence Minister Li Shangfu
Image Source : AP Chinese Defence Minister Li Shangfu

China's 'missing' Defence Minister Li Shangfu further raised speculations over his removal and detainment after he was notably absent from the meeting of the Central Military Commission (CMC) on Friday.

Li is believed to be a close confidante of Chinese President Xi Jinping, and has been missing from public view since the beginning of September. He was also absent from an important meeting with senior Vietnamese defence officials on September 7 and 8.

He was conspiciously missing from the military meeting held on Friday, according to a footage aired by Chinese state broadcaster CCTV, extending his unexplained public absence to its third week. The CMC and the Communist Party of China (CPC) are headed by Xi himself.

The meeting discussed the political education of Chinese soldiers in the People's Liberation Army (PLA). Three out of the seven CMC members, including vice-chairman He Weidong, were present at the meeting. He asked the PLA commanders to step up combat readiness, as per reports.

Li's disappearance and speculations

Despite being missing for over two weeks, Li's name still figures as a defence minister, CMC member and state councillor at the Chinese government and military websites. Meanwhile, China's Foreign Ministry on Friday avoided questions on his disappearance, CNN reported.

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

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 has placed him under house arrest, adding that he has not been for the past three weeks and was also absent from his scheduled trip to Vietnam.

Why is this case significant?

Li's disappearence 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.

Lyle Morris, a fellow at the Asia Society Institute, told BBC that President Xi has yet to consolidate complete control of the PLA and is worried about corruption in the military ranks, signalling that they are unable to achieve absolute loyalty to the party.

Li's mysterious disappearance also comes after Chinese Foreign Minister Qin Gang, a close aide of the President, who is known for his skewering one-liners and punchlines wrapped in metaphors while defending his government, has abruptly disappeared from the public since June 25.

This triggered assumptions about his association with the Communist regime. Some Taiwanese, as well as Western media, reported about his alleged "extramarital affairs" with a renowned Hong Kong TV presenter. According to a report by The Times, the diplomat has an extramarital affair with a Hong Kong-based television personality, Fu Xiaotian.

The suden disappearance 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 disapparance has raised questions on Xi's governance as he enforces strict party discipline.

It is not the first time when the country's prominent people went 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.

According to media reports, the Chinese defence minister was last seen in Beijing on August 29 where he could be seen delivering a key-note address at a security forum with African nations. He last traveled outside China in mid-August on a trip to Russia and Belarus.

(with inputs from agencies)


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