Where is Chinese Defense Minister Li Shangfu? The senior military officer has not been heard from in more than two weeks, as the Financial Times noted in an article published on Friday.
The general last appeared in public at the third China-Africa Peace and Security Forum in Beijing on August 29. Li hadn’t left. Porcelain since a trip to Moscow and Minsk earlier that month.
Beijing is silent on the disappearance. The only official clue emerged when Vietnamese authorities said Li’s ministry last week canceled his trip to Hanoi for “health reasons.”
But sources in Washington offered a different explanation. Speaking to the Financial Times on condition of anonymity, several US officials said Li could be the subject of a corruption investigation, which could have led Chinese authorities to quietly remove the defense minister from his position just six months after his appointment. appointment by the president. Xi.
Reuters reported on Friday that Li is under investigation by Chinese authorities, citing 10 people described as familiar with the matter.
Beijing appears to have undertaken a cleanup this summer in the ranks of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA).
“There are signs that a vast anti-corruption campaign is underway targeting the PLA,” said Carlotta Rinaudo, China specialist at the International Team for the Study of Security (ITSS) in Verona.
In July, Xi himself announced the dismissal of two officials of the PLA Rocket Force, a military branch responsible for the development of highly strategic ballistic missiles.
In early September, the president of the army’s military court was fired. Beijing gave no official reason for this. “unexpected reorganization”.
However, when it comes to China’s military, corruption remains the prime suspect.
“PLA corruption has been a problem since China opened up economically to the world in the 1980s,” said sinologist Marc Lanteigne of Norway’s Arctic University. “There have been scandals for 20 years about generals getting rich by selling access and influence.”
‘No one is safe’
Since coming to power in 2012, Xi has made combating corruption in the military ranks a top priority. “He is obsessed with the fight against corruption in the EPL,” said Rinaudo.
“When Xi Jinping’s father was rehabilitated, he helped him get a job as mishu. It is a Chinese term that literally means “book of secrets” and (designates) a personal assistant who has access “to the “secrets” of a military general,” he explained, referring to the purge and subsequent return to favor of the father of Xi, Xi Zhongxun.
“It was a perfect place to see the extent of corruption in the PLA.”
The recent cleanup – including the disappearance of the defense minister – could be the latest manifestation of Xi’s anti-corruption crusade.
The fact that the president did not hesitate to fire a minister he had appointed in March and who “is certainly seen as a Xi loyalist,” as Lanteigne said, would seem to demonstrate the president’s determination.
“No one is safe,” Rinaudo said.
He said Li’s profile also fits well with a major corruption case in the military.
“Around 2017-2018, he worked for the team development department, which… is considered one of the most corrupt because of the enormous amount of money they have access to,” he said.
However, Li’s disappearance does not fit neatly into the narrative of a major anti-corruption effort: China’s president has never been discreet in his fight against corruption in the military. “It’s an accomplishment he’s very proud of,” Lanteigne said.
Xi may have opted for silence because he does not want to draw too much media attention to an issue that tarnishes a man who is supposedly close to him.
“This really calls into question the control that Xi Jinping has over his inner circle and his ability to choose the right person,” Lanteigne said.
But Li’s disappearance also recalls another recent episode at the highest level of the state. In July, former Foreign Minister Qin Gang also disappeared… for more than a month. Qin was officially fired at the end of that month with no reason given. The former minister has not appeared since then.
After the wave of disappearances of billionaires and business leaders in recent years, the turn of senior political officials could come. The recent quiet layoffs reflect significant “infighting between administrations or even factions” in China’s government, Lanteigne said. The cacophony behind the scenes conflicts with the image of control that Xi exercises over his government.
Anxiety, not strength
But the political situation in China has been tense since the end of Beijing’s “zero Covid” policy, which was preceded by demonstrations “that caught the government by surprise due to their strength,” Lanteigne said. The layoffs are “perhaps a reaction to Xi’s impression of a loss of control over the situation,” she said.
“In some ways, getting rid of a loyal supporter is a show of force by Xi,” Rinaudo said.
At the international level, disappearances create more an impression of anxiety than strength, according to both experts interviewed by FRANCE 24. United States Ambassador to Japan Emanuel Rahm He even mocked the situation, comparing it to mystery writer Agatha Christie’s novel “And Then There Were None,” in which one character after another disappears.
“Both ministers are responsible for projecting power outside the country,” Lanteigne said. “The impression that there is some internal turmoil behind this does not help the government demonstrate that China is in a position to play an active role on the world stage.”
From a diplomatic point of view, “it is raising doubts about who is in charge of foreign diplomacy,” Rinaudo said.
However, the defense minister’s likely isolation could ultimately benefit Beijing. Since 2018, Li has been on the list of people. target of US sanctions for having sold military equipment to Russian entities that were sanctioned by the US.
“Having a defense minister on a Washington sanctions list was a bad thing for (China-US) relations,” Rinaudo said. “Now that he’s gone, it might ease tensions.”
What’s more, Li “is a hawk who was very aggressive…on China’s territorial dispute and relations with the West,” Lanteigne said. For the Arctic University professor, the appointment of his successor will be a very good indicator of Xi’s mood. If the new defense minister is moderate, it could be a sign that Beijing wants to improve relations with Washington.
This article is a translation of original in french.