China’s defence minister has not been seen in almost three weeks with speculation he is under investigation, the latest case of a senior Communist party official to disappear from public view.
Gen Li Shangfu was last seen on 29 August when he gave a speech to the China-Africa peace and security forum. His last overseas trip was to Moscow and Minsk in mid-August, where he met Russian officials on the sidelines of a security conference, and with the Belarusian president Alexander Lukashenko.
The US government believes Li has been put under investigation, the Financial Times reported on Friday, citing senior officials. Reuters reported Li cancelled a meeting with Vietnamese defence officials at the last minute last week. Two Vietnamese officials told the news agency that Beijing had postponed the annual meeting.
Rahm Emanuel, the US ambassador to Japan, has been particularly vocal about the mystery, likening Xi Jinping’s cabinet to Agatha Christie’s novel And Then There Were None.
On Friday, he posted on X/Twitter claiming Li had not appeared at a scheduled meeting with the Singaporean chief of navy because he was “placed under house arrest”. He did not provide a source for the claims.
Emanuel’s office and the Singaporean navy have been contacted for comment.
Li’s disappearance follows the surprise removal from his post in July of the Chinese foreign minister, Qin Gang, also after a weeks-long disappearance. There has been no further information or sign of him since.
Xi also replaced two top generals of the Rocket Force in early August, in a major shake-up of the military wing’s leadership. Former commander Li Yuchao had not been seen in public for weeks prior, and there was no explanation of his removal.
Since coming to power in 2013, Xi has run an extensive and unforgiving anti-corruption drive that analysts say also targeted political opponents. There has been a particular crackdown on corruption in the People’s Liberation Army (PLA).
But more than a decade into his rule, and after the greatest consolidation of power around a Chinese leader since Mao Zedong, senior ranks are now largely all Xi’s allies.
“It would be remarkable that in year 11 of Xi being in charge of the PLA there is still such high-level corruption, and for the Rocket Force officers and Li Shangfu, Xi can not blame his predecessors,” wrote the China analyst Bill Bishop on Friday.
Drew Thompson, a senior fellow at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy, said Li and Qin were the international community’s “gateway to an opaque system” and their disappearances were concerning.
“It’s kind of shocking that in three months China has disappeared both the foreign and defence ministers,” said Thompson, who is also a former US state department official. “These are two critical foreign interlocutors but China feels no obligation to inform the international community how or why [the ministers have gone]. It reinforces how inward China has turned.”
Li was appointed defence minister in March 2023, after a few months as the highest-ranked member of the central military commission, which oversees the armed forces. In 2018, as director of the military’s equipment development department he was sanctioned by the US over the PLA’s purchase of Russian military equipment.
Li’s biography and title remained online at the time of publication. Following Qin’s removal references to him as foreign minister were quickly scrubbed from Chinese internet sites, although some were later restored.
In China’s political system ministers are not the highest ranking in a particular portfolio. As defence minister, Li reports to two vice-chairs in the central military commission, who then report to Xi. However, he is also one of five state councillors, which ranks higher than a regular minister. Qin remains a state councillor.