Chinese defence minister Li Shangfu told a China-Africa security forum in Beijing last month that the world was entering a new period of “instability”.
Just over two weeks later, officials and experts outside China are raising questions about the durability of Chinese president Xi Jinping’s cabinet, after Li became the second high-profile minister to disappear with little or no explanation from public view in less than two months.
US officials told the Financial Times they believed Li had been stripped of his duties in a pattern that seemed to follow that of China’s former foreign minister, Qin Gang, who mysteriously disappeared in June and was officially replaced a month later. His fate is unknown.
“As Shakespeare wrote in Hamlet, ‘Something is rotten in the state of Denmark’,” US ambassador to Japan Rahm Emanuel posted on Thursday on X, formerly Twitter.
A week earlier Emanuel wrote that China’s government was “now resembling Agatha Christie’s novel And Then There Were None”.
While senior Chinese officials are periodically purged for corruption, analysts say two cabinet ministers have not disappeared in this way in recent decades, especially in such quick succession.
Their situation — which comes just six months after Xi announced his new cabinet as part of the inauguration of his third-five year term — adds to perceptions that decision-making is becoming even less transparent at a moment when China is struggling to rekindle domestic and foreign investor confidence in its struggling economy.
In contrast to the removal of previous senior figures, Li and Qin were both picked by Xi, making it more difficult for the president to deflect blame for their failures.
“It’s very unusual. I could not have imagined in such a short period of time that two very important ministers would disappear and without any information,” said Alfred Wu, associate professor at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy in the National University of Singapore.
Although the defence minister wields little power, he serves as the People’s Liberation Army’s face to the outside world. An aerospace engineer with little international exposure, Li was confirmed as defence minister in March after joining the Central Military Commission, China’s highest military body, last October.
Internationally, Li’s appointment was controversial from the start. In 2018, the US placed sanctions on him for engaging in transactions with individuals affiliated with Russia’s defence or intelligence sectors. Li was director of an agency that planned, developed and procured weapons for the PLA at the time.
China refused to let Li meet US defence secretary Lloyd Austin while the sanctions prevailed, complicating the countries’ military ties.
US officials have said Li is being investigated for corruption, but one said it was unclear whether it was related to his time in charge of the department responsible for developing and procuring weapons.
In July, the Central Military Commission, which Xi chairs, announced a corruption probe into equipment procurement going back almost six years. The following month Xi removed the two top generals at the PLA’s Rocket Force, which oversees the country’s missiles and nuclear weapons, in the biggest shake-up of the military leadership in a decade. Li was not named in those probes.
While many analysts view Xi’s anti-corruption campaigns as politically motivated, one US official said graft was endemic in the PLA, inhibiting the president’s ambitions of turning it into a force capable of tasks such as subduing Taiwan. “It [corruption] has had a profound effect on what they’re able to do, and how they do it,” the official said.
Officially, China has said nothing about Li’s whereabouts. The foreign ministry on Friday said it was “not familiar with the situation”. Reuters on Thursday cited Vietnamese officials saying that Li cancelled a meeting last week because of a “health condition” — the same reason given by the foreign ministry early in Qin’s absence.
“Anyone who [has been] publicly claimed [as having] health issues will never be healthy again in the future,” said one user on Weibo, China’s Twitter-like social media service, in one of the few uncensored posts on Li.
While no mention was made of Li on official media, analysts said the rapid purges of the two ministers indicated troubles beneath the surface in Xi’s government.
Lyle Morris, a former Pentagon China official now at the Asia Society Policy Institute, said the investigation was a “big deal” that raised questions about the vetting process, since Xi has a large team that studies candidates for senior government positions.
He said the situation was embarrassing for Xi and reflected a weakness in the Chinese system in terms of instability, but cautioned it could also be a sign of the president’s power.
“Maybe this is Xi inserting himself in a system that is highly corrupt, so in some paradoxical way it shows strength with his ability to take someone down so early in his tenure,” Morris said.
Xi was already facing increasing policy challenges after his zero-Covid strategy pushed the economy into a nosedive last year from which it has struggled to emerge, with growth slowing in the second quarter.
“There is speculation his top aides are not aligning themselves enough with him so he probably is using this [the crackdowns] to enhance further loyalty to his leadership. Not only from the civilian side but from the military side,” Yu Ping, a China expert and a former fellow at NYU’s US-Asia Law Institute.
The risk was that as Xi consolidated his power — at the 20th Chinese Communist party (CCP) congress last year, he installed loyalists to the top leadership positions and excluded rival factions — such apparent purges would become more regular, said NUS’s Wu.
Officials would compete to show their loyalty and try to expose rivals’ weaknesses, he said. In a paper on tensions between Xi’s top officials, Guoguang Wu, senior research scholar at the Center on China’s Economy and Institutions, Stanford University, said that these disputes accounted for many of China’s contradictory policies, such as trying to attract external investors while conducting national security raids on foreign consultants.
“When the supreme leader controls everything, ironically, the CCP regime becomes less stable politically and more inconsistent in terms of governance,” Wu wrote in The China Leadership Monitor magazine this month.
The other risk from the sudden apparent purges of ministers is that they might further disempower other senior officials, making them less inclined to take bold steps to solve the country’s problems, analysts said. Foreign countries will also wonder whether it is worth engaging deeply with cabinet ministers, knowing they lack clout.
World leaders “will be guessing about whether they really need to talk to [a given minister] or if that person will last very long”, said Yu.
With additional reporting by Kathrin Hille in New York