First, a high-ranking diplomat had to take a break. Then a defense minister who is no longer seen in public. In China, these mysterious public disappearances shed more light than ever on the opacity of President Xi Jinping’s power.
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Defense Minister Li Shangfu is reportedly under investigation and relieved of his duties, U.S. officials believe, according to information published last week by the Financial Times.
Li Shangfu was appointed six months ago and suddenly disappeared from the public eye a few weeks ago.
In June, the same thing happened to Qin Gang, then foreign minister. Promoted in March and seen as a close ally of President Xi, he was fired in late July without explanation, including after several weeks of absence.
At the same time, China announced that former naval commander Wang Houbin would take over leadership of the missile unit after a corruption investigation was reported in the press.
His predecessor, Li Yuchao, had disappeared a few weeks earlier. No statement was leaked to state media.
“The composition of President Xi’s Cabinet now resembles Agatha Christie’s novel Ten Little Negroes,” joked American Ambassador to Japan Rahm Emanuel on the social network X (formerly Twitter) in early September.
“We haven’t seen or heard from Li Shangfu for three weeks,” he noted on September 8th.
For analyst Sun Yun, director of the China program at the Stimson Center in Washington, such a situation “says a lot about the unpredictability of China’s personal choices and domestic politics today.”
Since taking over as Communist Party leader in 2012, Xi Jinping has tightened his control over the government and appointed some of his closest political allies to top positions.
“If we learn that Li (Shangfu) was also fired, it would not be positive for Xi’s image,” Sun Yun believes. Because “Qin Gang and Li Shangfu were both chosen by him.”
The fight against corruption has long been the hobbyhorse of the Chinese president, who launched an extensive campaign against all possible criminals after coming to power.
While some welcome these efforts to clean up Chinese politics, critics also see them as an effective way to get rid of political rivals.
“Very shortly after coming to power, Xi Jinping initiated a purge in the highest ranks of the military and security forces, and this continues to this day,” Sheena Chestnut Greitens, an expert on authoritarian politics in Asia, told AFP of the East and professor at from the University of Texas.
According to Ms. Chestnut Greiten, the Chinese leader sees corruption as a “fundamental threat” “because it makes people more loyal to personal profits than to the Communist Party.”
While the campaign initially seemed to target potential rivals, more recent investigations are now targeting Xi Jinping’s own allies.
“The fact that they are fired so quickly raises questions about what information is or is not provided to Xi when he selects people for ministries and about “what led to them being fired so quickly,” notes Sheena Chestnut Greitens.
“Interlocutors (from China) have to ask themselves whether the person they are speaking to really has power and influence in Beijing, or whether they disappear and cannot be reached for months.”
The possible firing of Li Shangfu and the unexplained departure of former missile unit chief Li Yuchao appear to indicate that Xi Jinping’s anti-corruption campaign is reaching the highest echelons of the Chinese military.
For Lyle Morris, associate researcher in foreign policy and national security at the Asia Society Policy Institute, Li Shangfu’s disappearance also shows that this military campaign is “far from over.”
“This is not an obscure unknown that can be discreetly dismissed,” he wrote of Li Yuchao on X.
China has yet to confirm whether any of the three men are under investigation and has refused to answer questions on the matter.
“I am not aware of the situation you mentioned,” Mao Ning, a Chinese diplomatic spokesman, said Tuesday when asked about a Wall Street Journal article that explained Qin Gang’s dismissal as an extramarital marriage.
The lack of official statements opens the door to speculation and makes China even more opaque to outsiders.
“This reinforces the sense of unpredictability of Chinese foreign policy at a time when China’s political system is already less transparent and more difficult for foreigners to understand,” notes Sheena Chestnut Greitens.