Li’s absence comes just months after the ouster of other senior officials, including former foreign minister Qin Gang and generals in the command managing the country’s nuclear arsenal.
The episode rekindles worries about policymaking in China, where President Xi Jinping is less than a year into his third term after packing top government posts with loyalists in March. That’s a concern for investors who are already worried about a property crisis, a nascent economic rebound from the pandemic, heightened tensions with the US and a greater government focus on national security.
Here’s what to know about China’s missing defense minister:
1. Who is Li Shangfu?
The son of veteran Red Army soldier, the 65-year-old Li graduated from the National University of Defense Technology in 1982. He started his career as a technician at the Xichang Satellite Launch Center and started running the facility in Sichuan province in 2003. He oversaw launches including the lunar probe Chang’e 2 in 2010.
He then rose through the ranks of the military as President Xi Jinping pushed to upgrade his fighting forces. With an aerospace engineering background, Li was part of the space and aviation elite called the “Cosmos Club” that Xi has promoted. That trend saw Li become deputy commander of the army’s Strategic Support Force, which was created in 2015 to oversee space and electronic warfare as part of Xi’s drive for military modernization. He was appointed defense minister in March after heading the People’s Liberation Army’s equipment program from 2017 to 2022.
Li was targeted for sanctions by Washington in 2018 for allegedly aiding the transfer of Russian weapons to China. These sanctions were a sticking point before a potential meeting between Li and US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin at the Shangri-La Dialogue security meeting in Singapore in June. In the end, the two only shook hands and did not have a substantive conversation.
2. When did Li last show up and where is he now?
Li’s last known public appearance was on August 29, when he delivered a speech at the China-Africa Peace and Security Forum in Beijing. Earlier last month, he also visited Russia and Belarus. During a security conference in Moscow, he called China’s military relationship with Russia a “model for cooperation.”
Speculation about his status grew after he apparently pulled out of a meeting with Vietnamese defense leaders earlier this month. US officials have intelligence suggesting Li has been removed from his post, according to a US official familiar with the matter who asked not to be identified discussing the sensitive issue. China’s defense ministry hasn’t responded to multiple requests for comment, and the foreign ministry said Monday it was unaware of Li’s situation.
3. Is Li in trouble?
Beijing and Communist Party-controlled state media have provided no information about Li’s status or reason for his absence from public events. He is under an investigation that relates to the procurement of military equipment, Reuters reported Friday, citing people familiar with the matter.
In July, China’s military launched an inquiry into corruption linked to hardware procurement going back to 2017, which coincided with the start of Li’s tenure as the head of the equipment department.
As defense minister, Li’s job involves liaising with foreign militaries and is largely administrative and diplomatic. The next event to watch for his presence is the annual Xiangshan Forum in October, a gathering of military officials and defense ministers in Beijing.
4. Why does the Li situation matter?
China’s leadership is busy trying to address economic issues, record youth unemployment and pressure from the US that could thwart its tech ambitions. What it doesn’t need is instability in the highest ranks of government.
Li’s disappearance follows the ouster of Qin as foreign minister and the replacement of the two most senior leaders in the People’s Liberation Army’s Rocket Force. They were all appointed by Xi, and their removals have been fodder for the Chinese leader’s critics.
“President Xi’s cabinet lineup is now resembling Agatha Christie’s novel And Then There Were None,” the US ambassador to Japan, Rahm Emanuel, wrote on X, formerly known as Twitter.
He also took an undiplomatic swipe at China, saying: “Who’s going to win this unemployment race? China’s youth or Xi’s cabinet?”
There could be an upside to the situation for the US. Li’s removal would clear a key roadblock to military talks between the world’s two largest economies that have been halted for more than a year. Before the Shangri-La Dialogue, China had cited the sanctions on Li as an obstacle to military exchanges.
The Biden administration has sought to improve communications with Beijing even as the two countries spar over a wide range of issues, including Taiwan, trade curbs and sales of high-end chipmaking equipment.
5. Is Li connected to Xi?
Li has no known direct ties to China’s leader. He did work with Zhang Youxia, the current vice-chair of China’s top military body, the Central Military Commission, and a long-time associate of Xi. Li also served in the armaments department between 2013 and 2015, when Zhang was its director.
Zhang accompanied Xi during an inspection trip in northeast China earlier this month, when the Chinese leader called for unity and stability in the military.
Zhang and Xi go way back. They both have links to the northwestern province of Shaanxi and their fathers were also close, serving together during the civil war in the 1940s.
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