The mystery surrounding China’s missing defence minister
His absence raises questions about Xi Jinping’s judgment
MAO ZEDONG used to say that political power grows from the barrel of a gun. In other words, controlling the armed forces is key to any leader’s success. Xi Jinping, China’s current supremo (and a keen student of Mao), appears to believe the same, having built his authority to a large extent on his sweeping overhaul of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) in the past decade. Yet just as those changes were supposed to be bearing fruit, a broadening purge of the PLA’s top ranks is calling into question its capacity to fight—and Mr Xi’s to lead.
The latest blow came with reports on September 14th and 15th that General Li Shangfu, who was appointed defence minister and state councillor (a senior role in China’s cabinet), in March, was recently detained for questioning. General Li, who is 65, has not been seen in public for more than two weeks, and was suddenly pulled out of an annual meeting with Vietnamese defence leaders that was scheduled for September 7th and 8th. Chinese authorities blamed a “health condition”.
China’s government has not confirmed any of the reports. A foreign-ministry spokeswoman said she wasn’t aware of the situation when asked to comment at a routine briefing. But if the news is accurate, it will be the first time in about six years that such a fate has befallen a sitting member of the Communist Party’s Central Military Commission, which controls the armed forces and is headed by Mr Xi.
It would suggest, too, that his purge goes well beyond the Rocket Force, which controls the PLA’s conventional and nuclear missiles. In July the authorities announced the sudden dismissal of General Li Yuchao, the commander of the Rocket Force, and General Xu Zhongbo, its political commissar. No reason was given. But there has been speculation that they could be under investigation for corruption or leaking military secrets.
A less high-profile but equally unusual personnel change came to light on September 1st with the dismissal of Major General Cheng Dongfang as president of the PLA military court after just eight months in that post. No reason was given. A graduate of the prestigious Peking University, General Cheng had previously served as head of the legal department and spokesman of the PLA garrison in Hong Kong.
Since all four generals’ appointments would have been approved by Mr Xi, if not personally decided by him, their downfall also raises questions about his judgment—or his ability to vet personnel effectively. So too does the equally sudden removal as foreign minister of Qin Gang, who was given that post by Mr Xi in December. The Chinese authorities cited health reasons for that change as well.
One possible explanation is that the four generals’ problems are all connected to the Rocket Force. Its share of the military budget is thought to have expanded in recent years as it has been overseeing a major upgrade of China’s nuclear arsenal. There has been no suggestion of corruption so far but big military-spending schemes have often enabled embezzlement, kickbacks and other misuse of funds.
Mr Xi’s new choices to lead the Rocket Force also suggest that he is trying to break up the kind of patronage networks within the service that have often led to corruption in the past. The force’s new commander, General Wang Houbin, is a career naval officer. Its new political commissar, General Xu Xisheng, comes from the air force.
A second possibility surrounding General Li Shangfu’s predicament is that it relates to his own long involvement in weapons development and procurement—another fertile ground for corruption. An engineer by training, he spent three decades working at China’s main satellite-launch centre, eventually becoming its director.
From 2017 to 2022 he headed the Central Military Commission’s Equipment Development Department. America imposed sanctions on him in 2018 for his role in China’s purchase of Russian combat aircraft and missile equipment. In July this year, the department announced a fresh crackdown on corruption, calling for tips about abuses dating back to 2017.
But there could be several other explanations, such as a failure to follow Mr Xi’s orders or another breach of military discipline. As defence minister, General Li is principally responsible for military relations with other countries and does not oversee operations. In that sense, his dismissal might not have immediate effects on the PLA’s capacity to fight.
Nonetheless, it would almost certainly be damaging to morale within the PLA and to the armed forces’ public image at home and abroad. The PLA’s corruption and ineffectiveness before Mr Xi took power could be blamed on his predecessors. But its current problems suggest he has had less success than he hoped in turning it into a leaner—and cleaner—fighting force capable of taking on America in a war over Taiwan, the self-governing island that China claims.
There are no signs of any organised challenge to Mr Xi’s authority. However, the turmoil in the PLA is likely to amplify doubts about his ability to govern effectively as he confronts a wide range of challenges, including a slowing economy, crippling local-government debt and a rapidly ageing population.
The purges are also rich pickings for Mr Xi’s foreign critics as he seeks to portray China’s political system as a more stable and effective alternative to Western-style liberal democracy. Rahm Emanuel, the American ambassador to Japan, compared China’s government to an Agatha Christie novel, “And Then There Were None”, in a post last week on X, a social-media platform. After the reports about General Li on September 15th, he offered another literary analogy: “As Shakespeare wrote in Hamlet, ‘Something is rotten in the state of Denmark’.”■
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