September 15 (Reuters) – Chinese Defense Minister Li Changfu, who has disappeared from public view for more than two weeks, is under investigation by Chinese authorities, ten people familiar with the matter said.
The investigation into Li relates to the purchase of military equipment, according to a provincial security official and three people with direct contact with the Chinese military. Reuters was unable to obtain details about the equipment purchases subject to scrutiny.
Eight senior officials from China’s military procurement unit, which Li led from 2017 to 2022, are also under investigation, according to two people with direct contact with the military.
The two people said the investigation into Lee, who was appointed defense minister in March, and the eight officials was being conducted by the military’s powerful Discipline Inspection Commission.
Reuters’ detailed examination of the allegations against Li and the timing of the investigation is based on interviews with sources who regularly interact with senior Chinese political and defense leaders, and regional officials with intimate knowledge of Chinese policy.
A Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman told reporters on Friday that she was not aware of the situation. The State Council and the Ministry of Defense did not immediately respond to requests for comment. Lee could not be immediately reached.
The Financial Times reported on Friday, citing US officials, that the US government believes Lee has been placed under investigation. The Wall Street Journal quoted a person close to decision-making in Beijing as saying that he was taken in last week for questioning.
The US State Department did not immediately respond to a request for comment on media reports that US intelligence officials believe Lee is under investigation for corruption.
On Friday, US Ambassador to Japan Rahm Emanuel posed a question on X, formerly Twitter, whether Lee was under house arrest. The US Embassy in Tokyo did not immediately have additional comment.
Li was last seen in Beijing on August 29, delivering a keynote speech at a security forum with African countries. Earlier that month, he also visited Russia and Belarus.
The investigation into the minister began shortly after his return from that trip, according to a person with direct contact with the military and two foreign security officials familiar with the case.
By September 3, his ministry had canceled Li’s visit to Vietnam to attend an annual defense meeting between the two countries that was scheduled to take place from September 7 to 8, according to a Vietnamese official. Two Vietnamese officials said Beijing informed officials in Hanoi that Le was suffering from a “health condition” when it postponed the event.
Lee’s failure to attend that meeting, and talks with a senior Singaporean military official in China the same week, raised questions among regional diplomats and social media users about his whereabouts.
The investigation into Li follows China’s unjustified replacement of Foreign Minister Chen Gang in July after a long absence from public view and the reorganization of the People’s Liberation Army’s Rocket Force Command, which is responsible for conventional and nuclear missiles. Chinese officials initially said Chen’s absence was also due to health reasons.
These moves have raised questions from some observers and diplomats about the sudden changes in Chinese leadership at a time when its economy is struggling to recover from strict lockdowns due to the pandemic and its relations with the United States have been further strained over a range of issues.
Both Li and Chen are viewed by observers as handpicked by President Xi Jinping, making their absence after less than a year in office particularly notable. The two men had prominent roles in dealing with the public, and also served among China’s five members of the State Council, a position above that of an ordinary minister.
“Cleaning” in military procurement
In July, the Military Procurement Unit took the highly unusual step of issuing a notice that it was looking to “clean up” the bidding process. She called on the public to report violations dating back to October 2017, when Lee was at the helm. He managed the unit until October 2022.
When asked by reporters last month to comment on the whereabouts of two other former senior military commanders who have not recently been seen in public and whether they were under investigation, a Defense Ministry spokesman said the military had “zero tolerance for corruption,” without dismissing the possibility that they could be the subject of an investigation. .
The spokesman said, “We must always blow the trumpet, investigate every case, punish every case of corruption, and firmly win the difficult and protracted battle against corruption.”
In 2016, Lee was appointed deputy commander of the military’s then-new Strategic Support Force – an elite body tasked with accelerating the development of space and cyber warfare capabilities. Then the following year he was assigned to head the military procurement unit.
The United States imposed sanctions on Lee in 2018 over the purchase of weapons from Rosoboronexport, Russia’s largest arms exporter.
Beijing has repeatedly said it wants to drop those sanctions to facilitate better discussions between the Chinese and American militaries. US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin sought to hold talks with Lee during a defense conference in Singapore last June, but did not go beyond pleasantries, according to a Pentagon spokesman.
Reporting and writing by the Reuters newsroom; Edited by Katrina Ang and Danielle Flynn
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