The prolonged and unexplained absence of another senior Chinese minister became an issue of global intrigue on Friday after a flurry of speculation that he has got into trouble.
Suspicion over the weeks-long disappearance of Defence Minister Li Shangfu deepened after media reports he was subject to a probe and a top US diplomat questioned whether he had been placed under house arrest.
Li, 65, has missed meetings with Vietnamese and Singaporean defence leaders in recent weeks, according to sources with direct knowledge of the engagements. He was last seen in Beijing on August 29 delivering a keynote address at a security forum with African nations.
The US government believes Li has been placed under investigation, the Financial Times reported on Friday, citing US officials. The Wall Street Journal reported he had been taken away last week for questioning and removed from his post. But neither report gave any reason on why this may have occurred.
Second minister to fade from view
Rahm Emanuel, Washington’s outspoken ambassador to Japan, wrote in a post on X: “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 because he was placed on house arrest???”
China’s defence ministry did not immediately respond to requests for comment. The US embassy in Tokyo said it did not have immediate further comment.
Asked whether Li was under investigation, foreign ministry spokesperson Mao Ning said she was “not aware of the relevant information”.
Li’s absence follows China’s unexplained replacement of its foreign minister, Qin Gang, in July after a prolonged period out of public view and a shake-up of the leadership of the People’s Liberation Army’s elite Rocket Force in recent months.
Like Li, Qin is one of China’s five state councillors, a cabinet position that ranks higher than a regular minister.
The moves have raised questions from analysts and diplomats about a lack of transparency in China’s leadership at a time when its economy is slowing and its relations with rival superpower the United States have soured over a range of issues.
Emanuel, a gregarious and outspoken diplomat who served as a top aide to former US President Barack Obama, has hit the headlines for a series of fiery posts directed at China in recent weeks.
He first posted about Li’s public absence last Friday, fuelling a swirl of speculation on his whereabouts. Asked why Emanuel had weighed in on the issue, US State Department spokesperson Matthew Miller said the ambassador “throughout his career has spoken in a colorful manner”.
President Xi’s cabinet lineup is now resembling Agatha Christie’s novel And Then There Were None. First, Foreign Minister Qin Gang goes missing, then the Rocket Force commanders go missing, and now Defense Minister Li Shangfu hasn’t been seen in public for two weeks. Who’s going…
— ラーム・エマニュエル駐日米国大使 (@USAmbJapan) September 8, 2023
The Singapore meeting Emanuel appeared to reference in his latest post was a visit by the Singapore Navy’s Rear Admiral Sean Wat to China from September 4-9.
On the trip, Wat met with China’s navy commander, Dong Jun, and other navy leaders, Singapore’s defence ministry said on its website. Two sources familiar with the matter said Wat had also been expected to meet with Li.
One of the sources, an official with direct knowledge of the plans, said Wat was scheduled to meet with Li on September 5 in Beijing but “it didn’t happen”, without elaborating.
Singapore’s defence ministry did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Li also abruptly pulled out of a meeting with Vietnamese defence leaders scheduled for September 7-8.
Military observers and diplomats are closely watching whether China will go ahead with plans to hold the Beijing Xiangshan Forum – an annual international security summit normally hosted by China’s defence minister – in late October.
Hit with US sanctions, refused talks with Austin
Before Li was appointed to his post in March, he had led the military’s procurement unit.
In a rare notice in July, the unit said it was looking to “clean up” its bidding process and invited the public to report irregularities dating back to 2017. There has been no update on possible findings.
Li’s absence is being particularly closely watched by the United States, which has not dropped sanctions imposed on him in 2018 for buying weapons from Russia’s largest arms exporter, Rosoboronexport.
Chinese officials have repeatedly said they want those sanctions dropped to facilitate better discussions between the two sides’ militaries.
US Defence Secretary Lloyd Austin attempted talks with Li during a defence conference in Singapore in June, but did not get beyond a handshake.
Wen-Ti Sung, a political scientist at the Australian National University, said that although Li had been a “roadblock” in US-China military relations, his unexplained absence is problematic for China’s international relations in other ways.
“Other countries will be wondering something as basic as whose number to call when they want to set up military dialogues with China,” he said.
- Reuters with additional editing by Jim Pollard