Chinese Defense Minister Li Changfu told a China-Africa security forum in Beijing last month that the world was entering a new period of “instability.”
After a little more than two weeks, officials and experts outside China are raising questions about the continuity of Chinese President Xi Jinping’s government, after Li became the second high-ranking minister to disappear without any significant explanation from public opinion in less than two months.
US officials told the Financial Times they believe Li has been stripped of his duties in a pattern that appears to follow that of former Chinese Foreign Minister Chen Gang, who mysteriously disappeared in June and was officially replaced a month later. His fate is unknown.
“As Shakespeare wrote in Hamlet, something is rotten in the country of Denmark,” US Ambassador to Japan Rahm Emanuel posted Thursday on X, formerly Twitter.
A week earlier, Emanuel wrote that the Chinese government “now resembles an Agatha Christie novel and then there Were None“.
While senior Chinese officials are periodically purged for corruption, analysts say no two government ministers have disappeared in this way in recent decades, especially in such quick succession.
Their status – which comes just six months after Xi announced his new government as part of his inauguration for his third five-year term – adds to perceptions that the decision-making process is becoming less transparent as China struggles to revive domestic and foreign policy. Foreign investors’ confidence in its faltering economy.
In contrast to the dismissals of previous senior figures, Li and Chen were handpicked by Xi, making it difficult for the president to deflect blame for their failures.
“It is very unusual. I could not have imagined in such a short period of time that two very important ministers would disappear without any information,” said Alfred Wu, an associate professor at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy at the National University of Singapore.
Although the Defense Minister has little power, he represents the face of the PLA to the outside world. Li, an aerospace engineer with little international experience, was confirmed as defense minister in March after joining the Central Military Commission, China’s top military body, last October.
Internationally, Lee’s appointment was controversial from the start. In 2018, the United States imposed sanctions on him for engaging in transactions with individuals linked to the Russian defense or intelligence sectors. Li was the director of an agency that planned, developed and purchased weapons for the People’s Liberation Army at the time.
China refused to allow Li to meet US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin while sanctions were in place, complicating military relations between the two countries.
US officials said Lee was being investigated for corruption, but one of them said it was unclear whether the matter was related to his time in charge of the department responsible for weapons development and procurement.
In July, the Central Military Commission, which Xi chairs, announced an investigation into corruption in equipment procurement nearly six years ago. The following month, Xi fired two top generals in the People’s Liberation Army’s Rocket Force, which oversees the country’s missiles and nuclear weapons, in the biggest change of military leadership in a decade. Lee’s name was not mentioned in those investigations.
While many analysts see Xi’s anti-corruption campaigns as politically motivated, one US official said corruption is endemic in the People’s Liberation Army, hampering the president’s ambitions to transform it into a force capable of undertaking tasks such as subjugating Taiwan. “He. She [corruption] “It had a profound impact on what they could do and how they could do it,” the official said.
Officially, China has said nothing about Li’s whereabouts. The State Department said on Friday that it was “not aware of the situation.” Reuters on Thursday quoted Vietnamese officials as saying that Ly had canceled a meeting last week due to his “health condition” – the same reason given by the Foreign Ministry early on for Chen’s absence.
“Anyone [has been] He claimed publicly [as having] “Health issues will never be healthy again in the future,” a user of Weibo, China’s Twitter-like social media service, said in one of Li’s few uncensored posts.
Although Li was not mentioned in state media, analysts said the rapid purges of the two ministers indicated problems beneath the surface in Xi’s government.
Lyle Morris, a former Pentagon official on China who now works at the Asia Society Policy Institute, said the investigation was a “big deal” that raised questions about the vetting process, since Xi has a large team examining candidates for top government positions.
He said the situation is embarrassing for Xi and reflects the weakness of the Chinese regime in terms of instability, but warned that it may also be a sign of the president’s strength.
“This may be Xi inserting himself into a very corrupt system, so in a paradoxical way he shows power by being able to oust someone so early in his tenure,” Morris said.
Xi was already facing mounting political challenges after his no-Covid-19 strategy sent the economy into a tailspin last year from which it struggled to emerge, with growth slowing in the second quarter.
“There is speculation that his senior aides are not aligned with him enough, so it is possible that he is using this [the crackdowns] To promote greater loyalty to his leadership. “Not just on the civilian side but on the military side,” says Yu Ping, a China expert and former fellow at New York University’s Asian American Law Institute.
The danger was that as Xi consolidated his power — at the 20th Communist Party of China Congress last year, he installed loyalists in top leadership positions and excluded rival factions — these apparent purges would become more regular, NUS’s Wu said.
He added that officials will compete to show their loyalty and try to expose competitors’ weaknesses. In a paper on tensions between senior officials under Xi, Guoguang Wu, a senior scholar at the Center for China Economics and Institutions at Stanford University, said these disputes underlie many of China’s contradictory policies, such as trying to attract outside investors while conducting national operations. Security raids on foreign consultants
“When the supreme leader controls everything, paradoxically, the CCP regime becomes less politically stable and more inconsistent in terms of governance,” Wu wrote in the China Leadership Monitor this month.
Another risk from the apparent surprise purges of ministers is that they could further weaken other senior officials, making them less inclined to take bold steps to solve the country’s problems, analysts say. Foreign countries will also wonder whether it is worth engaging deeply with ministers, knowing that they lack influence.
World leaders “will be guessing whether they really need to talk to them.” [a given minister] “Or if this person will last a very long time,” Yu said.
With additional reporting from Katherine Hale in New York
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