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China removes Li Shangfu as defense minister, who was out of public eye for 2 months

Li Shangfu in Singapore on June 1. He served as China's defense minister this year but Chinese leaders removed him on Tuesday.
Lionel Ng/Bloomberg via Getty Images
Li Shangfu in Singapore on June 1. He served as China's defense minister this year but Chinese leaders removed him on Tuesday.

China's leadership has formally dismissed the country's defense minister, Li Shangfu, about two months after he disappeared from the public eye, Chinese state media reported on Tuesday.

The decision was made after meetings of the Standing Committee of the National People's Congress, the country's top legislature, in Beijing.

Qin Gang, China's former foreign minister — who in June had also gone missing from public view — was also stripped of his state councilor position in the same decree on Tuesday. Beijing replaced Qin with Wang Yi as its foreign minister in July.

Chinese leaders did not provide explanation for the dismissals, but analysts say they signal turbulence among the top ranks of China's ruling Communist Party, with Li the second minister to be stripped of their titles in recent months.

There is widespread speculation that Li could be under investigation since he began missing official meetings in late August and stopped appearing in public, but NPR has not been able to verify this.

"It's never been easy to be a high-ranking member of the military in the People's Republic of China, because there is an understanding that that is the bedrock of regime security," says Joseph Torigian, a research fellow at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University who studies Chinese elite politics and history.

In the 1970s, China's Communist Party chairman Mao Zedong purged his defense chief Peng Dehuai, putting him in prison, where he died in agony from maltreatment. Another general, Marshall Lin Biao, died in a fiery plane crash after allegedly trying to defect to the Soviet Union.

Unlike these two men, however, Li was more of an outward-facing figurehead appointed to liaise with international delegations — but Torigian says, this didn't eliminate him as a potential threat in current leader Xi Jinping's eyes.

"For Xi Jinping to remove someone like Li Shangfu, it certainly sends a message, but it's not a destabilizing act," says Torigian.

The Financial Times reported that American officials believe Li is under investigation for corruption. The Wall Street Journal reported Qin was under investigation for national security issues over a possible affair.

"This is damaging to [Chinese leader] Xi Jinping's personal image, but it will not impact his hold on power," says Deng Yuwen, an independent Chinese political commentator based in the United States.

The speedy removal of two men once widely perceived as close to Xi reflects poorly on Xi's decision-making abilities, says Deng. On the other hand, he says, their dismissal also shows the power concentrated under Xi, and "how the Chinese Communist Party has become even more opaque, because one top leader can appoint or dismiss a person based on his impression from just one conversation."

Li's dismissal comes just weeks after a shake-up at the top of the Chinese military's rocket force, which oversees the country's growing nuclear arsenal and conventional missile stockpile.

"The procurement of equipment is a so-called fat area, meaning it could be lucrative for corrupt officials, because they handle the purchase of millions of dollars worth of equipment," says Willy Wo-Lap Lam, a senior fellow at the Jamestown Foundation, a research group based in Washington, D.C.

Before becoming defense minister, Li headed the military's main weapons procurement and development division. In 2018, Li was sanctioned by the United States for allegedly buying weapons from Russia — sanctions that became a major diplomatic roadblock when he was named defense minister earlier this year.

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Emily Feng is NPR's Beijing correspondent.
John Ruwitch is a correspondent with NPR's international desk. He covers Chinese affairs.