China has declined to comment on its defense minister’s whereabouts as questions swirl over his status a month after he was last seen in public.
Gen. Li Shangfu’s absence since late August has fueled rumors about his fate, but during a regular press briefing Thursday, Defense Ministry spokesperson Wu Qian said he was “not aware of the situation” when asked whether the minister was under investigation.
Li’s disappearance follows a series of unexplained personnel shakeups that have roiled the upper ranks of China’s ruling Communist Party this summer, including the ousting in July of former Foreign Minister Qin Gang.
Days later, Beijing announced the replacement of two generals leading the People’s Liberation Army Rocket Force, the military branch overseeing the nation’s arsenal of nuclear and ballistic missiles.
The disappearance of two high-profile ministers in quick succession has raised questions about the governance of leader Xi Jinping, who has made China’s political system even more opaque as he concentrates power and enforces strict party discipline.
Senior Chinese officials have vanished from public view in the past, only to be revealed months later by the Communist Party’s disciplinary watchdog that they’ve been detained for investigations. Such sudden disappearances have become a common feature in Xi’s anti-corruption campaign and gaps in information are not uncommon within the Chinese political system.
Where is Li Shangfu?
The Wall Street Journal reported earlier this month that Li was taken away in September by authorities for questioning, citing a person close to decision making in Beijing.
The Financial Times reported that the US government believes the defense minister has been placed under investigation, citing American officials. Neither of the reports cited a reason for the investigation.
When asked earlier this month by reporters, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken said he didn’t have “anything to offer” on the matter, which he added was an issue for the Chinese government to decide.
Li, who was sanctioned by the US in 2018 over China’s purchase of Russian weapons, is still listed as China’s defense minister, one of its five state councilors, and a member of the party’s powerful Central Military Commission (CMC).
In late July, the CMC’s Equipment Development Department issued a notice calling for public tip-offs on corrupt procurement practices dating back to 2017, which coincides with a time period that Li was in charge of procurement in the department.
It’s not clear if any disciplinary actions have been or will be taken against Li.
Former foreign minister Qin, who vanished from public view for a month before being removed from his ministerial post, has also retained the position of state councilor, a senior role in China’s cabinet, according to the State Council’s website.
Neither Li nor Qin were pictured in footage of a Communist Party study session attended by senior party officials and aired by state broadcaster CCTV on Wednesday. All three other state councilors were visible.
Last week, the Wall Street Journal reported that Qin was found by a Communist Party investigation to have been engaged in an extramarital affair while serving as China’s envoy to Washington, citing people familiar with the matter.
Qin had an extramarital affair with a high-profile Chinese television presenter who had a child through surrogacy in the United States, the Financial Times reported Tuesday.