Where’s China’s defence minister?

Li Shangfu, who was only just appointed China’s defence minister in March, hasn’t been seen publicly since 29 August.

Beijing first blamed a “health condition when Li was suddenly unable to meet Vietnamese counterparts earlier this month. And China’s foreign ministry said it was “not aware of the situation” when asked late last week.

But US officials now say he’s under investigation for corruption. The details are murky, but Li ran China’s big-spending defence procurement office from 2017 to 2022, so there’s been no shortage of opportunity.

Intrigue’s take: Li would be China’s 4th general and 2nd minister to get the boot since July. So we feel obliged to paraphrase Oscar Wilde: to lose one official may be regarded as misfortune; to lose five looks like carelessness.

Corruption is an entrenched issue here, so there’s a question whether these officials committed some additional sin (like disloyalty) to land in trouble. But either way, this also raises questions around President Xi himself, like:

  • his insight (did he not know there were clouds over these officials?)
  • his judgement (perhaps he knew, but appointed them anyway?)
  • his effectiveness (is his decade-long corruption drive working?), and
  • his own position (do these sackings reflect strength or weakness?)

But like so many things in today’s opaque China, the answer is… we don’t know. And these days, uncertainty there means uncertainty everywhere.

Also worth noting:

  • One analyst suggests Li’s removal could enable improved US-China military relations, since Li has been under US sanctions since 2018.
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