China’s Defence Minister Li Shangfu has not been seen in public for more than three weeks.
Britain’s Financial Times newspaper reported on Friday that the United States believed 65-year-old Li had been stripped of his duties and was under investigation by Chinese authorities.
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The Reuters news agency, meanwhile, reported Li had pulled out of a meeting with Vietnamese defence officials a week ago.
The speculation about Li’s whereabouts follows the abrupt disappearance from public view in July of Chinese Foreign Minister Qin Gang. It was later announced he had been removed from his post.
Here’s what we know so far:
Who is Li Shangfu?
- Li Shangfu was born in February 1958, the son of a high-ranking People’s Liberation Army (PLA) commander who survived the Long March and later fought in the Korean War.
- According to Chinese media, he graduated from the PLA’s National University of Defense Technology (NUDT) in 1982 and was later awarded a master’s degree in engineering. He was deployed for more than 30 years at the military’s Xichang Satellite Launch Centre.
- In 2016, Li was named 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. The following year, he was appointed to head the military’s procurement unit.
- Seen as fiercely loyal to President Xi Jinping, Li became defence minister in March.
- While he is a general, the position itself mainly involves defence diplomacy, and Li’s attendance at the annual Shangri-La Dialogue in Singapore in June was closely watched.
- Li is one of five State Councillors, a Chinese cabinet position that ranks higher in seniority than a regular minister.
- Washington imposed sanctions on Li in 2018 over buying weapons from Russia’s largest arms exporter, Rosoboronexport. He has refused to hold meetings with US officials until sanctions are lifted, and US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin’s attempt to hold talks during the Singapore event got no further than a handshake.
When was Li last seen?
- Li attended a security conference near Moscow, the Russian capital, on August 15.
- Two days later, the government of neighbouring Belarus released photos showing Li in a meeting with Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko in Minsk.
- On August 29, Li delivered a keynote address at the Africa Peace and Security Forum in Beijing.
As Shakespeare wrote in Hamlet, “Something is rotten in the state of Denmark.” 1st: Defense Minister Li Shangfu hasn’t been seen or heard from in 3 weeks. 2nd: He was a no-show for his trip to Vietnam. Now: He’s absent from his scheduled meeting with the Singaporean Chief of Navy…
— ラーム・エマニュエル駐日米国大使 (@USAmbJapan) September 15, 2023
What is fuelling the speculation over his fate?
- The leadership of China’s Rocket Force, the army unit that oversees its nuclear arsenal, was replaced in July. Its former commander, Li Yuchao, had not been seen in public for weeks before the change and Xinhua, China’s official media agency, gave no explanation for his removal.
- Foreign Minister Qin also disappeared from public view in July, before it was announced he’d been replaced. No explanation has been given for his departure after just seven months on the job.
- Speculation over Li’s fate has increased after China’s annual gathering on defence cooperation with Vietnam scheduled for September 7-8 was postponed. The Reuters news agency, citing two Vietnamese officials who declined to be named, said that Beijing told Hanoi days before the event that the minister had a “health condition”.
- Rahm Emanuel, the US ambassador to Japan, wondered what had happened to Li in a post on X, formerly known as Twitter, on September 8, saying President Xi Jinping’s cabinet “is now resembling Agatha Christie’s novel And Then There Were None”.
- On Friday morning, Emanuel again took to social media to note Li hadn’t “been seen or heard from in 3 weeks”, and that he might have been placed under house arrest.
- China has said little. When asked about Emanuel’s original post, a Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman told reporters she was “not aware of the situation”.