China’s defense minister might be under investigation

Updated Sep 15, 2023, 8:33am EDT
Belarusian Defence Ministry/Handout via REUTERS
securityEast Asia
Karina Tsui/

Chinese Defense Minister Li Shangfu has been taken away for questioning and is likely under investigation for corruption, people familiar with the matter have said, to multiple U.S. outlets.

Speculation over Li’s whereabouts grew after he was abruptly pulled out of a meeting with Vietnamese defense officials last week. Since then, he has not been seen in public, prompting rumors that the minister could have been ousted by Chinese leader Xi Jinping.

Li's exit would make him the first incumbent member of the Communist Party's Central Military Commission to be taken down in recent years, The Wall Street Journal reported1 . The commission is chaired by Xi and commands the country's armed forces. U.S. officials who spoke with the Journal said that Xi's most recent purge indicates that deep-seated issues within the People's Liberation Army remain unresolved. "Some of the PLA's enduring problems may be too big for Xi to solve," one U.S. official said.

The rumor caught the attention of China watchers after U.S. Ambassador to Japan Rahm Emanuel called out Li's two-week disappearance from public view2 , comparing Xi’s cabinet lineup to the Agatha Christie novel, And Then There Were None. Reports of Li's absence came as Xi called for unity and stability within the military, but as Bloomberg noted, the role of the defense minister is usually less public-facing3 . There is also an ongoing military probe into corruption linked to procuring hardware dating back to 2017 — when Li ran the country's equipment department, though he has not yet been accused of anything.

Li was due to attend an annual meeting on defense cooperation in Hanoi on Sept. 7 and 8, but as Reuters reports, Chinese officials told Vietnam that he could not attend because of a “health condition”4 . It’s not unusual for Beijing to use poor health to justify the absence of officials who have subsequently been found to be under investigation. Li’s absence also came shortly after Chinese Foreign Minister Qin Gang abruptly disappeared from public view and was then eventually sacked5 .

The disappearances of high-level officials in China illustrate a larger problem: the world understands even less about the country’s opaque inner workings “at a moment when we need to know more than ever,6 ” Michael Schuman wrote for The Atlantic. China’s rising global influence means that Beijing’s decisions impact billions of people’s health and welfare, and “war and peace itself,” Schuman argues. The fact that policymakers and diplomats are left in the dark about these decisions means that what remains hidden is likely more worrying. “Secrecy is the default position of the Communist Party anyway, but it has been put on steroids under Xi,” Steve Tsang of the SOAS China Institute at the University of London told Schuman.