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Missing Defence Minister brings spotlight to Xi’s purges

Two months after Foreign Minister Qin Gang mysteriously disappeared from public view, reports now suggest that Defence Minister Li Shangfu has been detained in connection with ongoing corruption investigations.

China’s Defence Minister Li Shangfu is the latest high-ranking Chinese official to be entangled in swirling political rumors. Recent reports indicate that the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) General has been detained as part of ongoing corruption investigations.

Just in July, China's Foreign Minister Qin Gang, who assumed office in March, vanished from the public eye without any explanation for several weeks. Eventually, a brief announcement revealed his removal from the post. Three months have passed, but there is still no clarification regarding the abrupt removal of one of the most prominent figures in the Xi Jinping government. Qin Gang also served as one of the five State Councillors, the third-highest position in the executive branch of government, trailing only the Premier and Vice Premiers.

On Friday, reports emerged that Mr. Li, who also holds the position of one of the five State Councillors, had been detained in connection with ongoing corruption investigations related to the military's Rocket Force, formerly known as the Second Artillery Corps. This investigation has already implicated several senior officials. Notably, Mr. Li was the first Chinese Defence Minister hailing from the Rocket Force and also serves on the Central Military Commission under Mr. Xi's leadership.

Although it remains uncertain whether the removals of these two prominent ministers are connected, some of the purges in the Rocket Force were announced shortly after Qin's removal.

Chinese officials declined to comment on Mr. Li's whereabouts on Friday. Similar to Mr. Qin's case, Beijing attributed his absence in diplomatic meetings to "health reasons."

U.S. officials have suggested that Mr. Li is in detention for questioning and has been removed from his post, according to a report in the Financial Times on Friday. Rahm Emanuel, the U.S. Ambassador to Japan, commented on these developments on X (formerly Twitter), likening the political situation in Beijing under Mr. Xi to an Agatha Christie novel. He wrote, "First, Foreign Minister Qin Gang goes missing, then the Rocket Force commanders disappear, and now Defense Minister Li Shangfu hasn’t been seen in public for two weeks."

What's notable about both Mr. Qin and Mr. Li is that they were personally selected and rapidly promoted by Mr. Xi to their positions, yet both barely served six months in their roles.

Mr. Li's removal would mark the first instance of a Central Military Commission (CMC) member being removed in several years. Early in his tenure, Mr. Xi oversaw the removal of two of the PLA's highest-ranking Generals from the CMC, later removing a third. Most observers interpreted these purges as a consolidation of Mr. Xi's centralized control over a military that had previously functioned as a state-within-a-state plagued by widespread corruption.

Mr. Xi, who is now in an unprecedented third term, has been widely regarded as the most powerful leader since Mao Zedong, having eliminated all political rivals and challenges. Nevertheless, the ongoing purges raise questions about the true state of Mr. Xi's control over the military, which has been the subject of multiple corruption investigations during his decade-long leadership. However, due to the opaqueness of Chinese politics, observers have limited information to decipher what is occurring behind the scenes.

Photo Credit: VIA REUTERS