China has announced the replacement of Defense Minister Gen. Li Shangfu, who had not been seen in public for nearly two months. This move follows the disappearance of former Foreign Minister Qin Gang earlier in the year, with no official explanations provided.
Li, who took on the role of defense minister during a cabinet reshuffle in March, had not been seen since his speech on August 29. While these disappearances have raised questions about the stability of President and Communist Party leader Xi Jinping’s inner circle of power, there is no clear indication that they signal a shift in China’s foreign or defense policies.
Xi Jinping is known for prioritizing loyalty and has been proactive in combating corruption, which some view as a means of eliminating political rivals and consolidating his political position amid economic challenges and escalating tensions with the U.S. over trade, technology, and Taiwan.
Li is subject to U.S. sanctions related to his supervision of weapon purchases from Russia, barring him from entering the United States. This has led to a suspension of contacts between China and the U.S. military, primarily in protest of U.S. arms sales to Taiwan, while China implies that the U.S. must lift sanctions against Li, a move that Beijing does not publicly acknowledge.
The announcement from state broadcaster CCTV stated that both Li and Qin have been removed from the State Council, China’s cabinet and the center of governmental power, likely marking the end of their political careers. However, it remains uncertain whether they will face prosecution or other legal consequences.
China’s political and legal systems are characterized by a high level of opacity, which has fueled speculation about potential corruption, personal conflicts, or disagreements with other influential figures leading to the downfall of top officials.
In addition to addressing internal political matters, the ruling party is grappling with efforts to revive an economy heavily impacted by strict “zero-Covid” measures, an aging population, high unemployment among college graduates, and the emigration of many of its wealthiest and best-educated citizens to more liberal societies abroad.
Xi Jinping has secured his ideology, known as “Xi Jinping Thought,” in the party constitution and eliminated presidential term limits, enabling him to potentially remain in power indefinitely. At 70 years old, he also heads the party and state committees overseeing the People’s Liberation Army, the world’s largest standing military force with over 2 million active-duty personnel.