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China sacks defence minister two months after he disappeared from public life

Li Shangfu is the second senior Chinese official to vanish from public view in recent months

Christopher Bodeen
Tuesday 24 October 2023 18:05 BST
No explanation has been given for the general’s sacking
No explanation has been given for the general’s sacking (AP)

China removed its defence minister General Li Shangfu from his post on Tuesday, two months after he disappeared from public life.

Mr Li, 65, who became defence minister during a cabinet reshuffle in March, hasn’t been seen since giving a speech on 29 August. No explanation has been given for his removal, nor has a replacement been announced for his job.

The Wall Street Journal cited sources saying Mr Qin had an extramarital affair while he was ambassador to the United States.

Mr Li is the second senior Chinese official to “disappear” this year, following former foreign minister Qin Gang. China also announced that Mr Gang has been stripped of his state councillor position.

There is no indication that the disappearances of Mr Qin and Mr Li signal a change in China's foreign or defence policies, although they have raised questions about the resilience of President Xi Jinping’s circle of power.

Mr Xi has a reputation for valuing loyalty above all else and he has relentlessly attacked corruption in public and private, sometimes in what has been seen as a method of eliminating political rivals and shoring up his political position amid a deteriorating economy and rising tensions with US over trade, technology and Taiwan.

Qin Gang during a press briefing in Beijing in May (Getty Images)

Mr Li had only been in the job since March, when Mr Xi started his third term as head of state. Mr Qin had also served less than a year before he disappeared from public view and was replaced by his predecessor, Wang Yi.

The disappearances of Mr Li and Mr Qin have raised questions from diplomats about the abrupt changes in China’s leadership at a time when the country’s economic growth is sluggish.

Mr Li is under US sanctions related to his overseeing weapon purchases from Russia that bar him from entering the country. China has since cut off contacts with the US military, mainly in protest over arm sales to Taiwan, but also strongly implying that Washington must lift the measures against Mr Li, which Beijing refuses to publicly recognise.

The announcement from state broadcaster CCTV said that both Mr Li and Mr Qin had been removed from the state council, China’s cabinet and the centre of government power. That virtually assures the end of their political careers, although it remains unclear whether they will face prosecution or other legal sanctions.

CCTV also announced Lan Fo’an’s new appointment as finance minister, and Yin He’jun as science and technology minister.

China’s political and legal systems remain highly opaque, fueling lively discussion of possible corruption, personal foibles or fallings-out with other powerful figures leading to the downfall of top officials.

Along with dealing with what appear to be internal political issues, the ruling party is struggling to revive an economy that has been severely impacted by the draconian “zero-Covid” measures, an aging population, high unemployment among college graduates and a movement of many of its wealthiest and best educated to more liberal societies abroad.

Having had his ideology, known as “Xi Jinping Thought”, enshrined in the party constitution and with the abolishment of presidential term limits, Mr Xi has structured the system so that he may stay in power for the rest of his life. The 70-year-old also heads the party and state committees overseeing the People’s Liberation Army, the world’s largest standing military with more than 2 million personnel on active duty.

Associated Press

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