China Removes Defense Minister Li Shangfu; Second Key Minister Ousted in 3 Months

AP file photo
Newly elected Chinese Defense Minister Gen. Li Shangfu takes his oath during a session of China’s National People’s Congress (NPC) at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing on March 12.

BEIJING — The Standing Committee of China’s National People’s Congress decided Tuesday to remove Defense Minister Li Shangfu, who has not been seen publicly for nearly two months. Li is the second key official to be ousted this year, following the removal of Foreign Minister Qin Gang in late July. Both were removed less than a year after assuming their posts.

China’s state broadcaster CCTV made the announcement during Tuesday’s evening news, but no information was given about the reason for Li’s removal, his future treatment or the person to replace him as defense minister. Li, 65, and Qin, 57, were also removed from the post of state councilor on the day.

Li’s whereabouts are unknown since he attended a forum on Aug. 29. In July, the Chinese military’s Equipment Development Department, which Li headed from 2017 to 2022, issued a public notice about irregularities related to equipment procurement since October 2017.

Shortly afterward, an unusual appointment was announced in which the top two officials of the Rocket Force, which deals with strategic missiles, were replaced. Hong Kong media had reported the possibility of large-scale corruption within the military.

Li has been on the U.S. economic sanctions list since 2018 for the purchase of fighter jets and other equipment from Russia. He was promoted to defense minister and vice premier-level state councilor in March this year, after becoming a member last fall of the Chinese Communist Party’s Central Military Commission, the military’s top leadership body.

Tightening discipline

The impact of Li’s removal on the administration of President Xi Jinping is expected to be limited. The removal of a second minister in only three months, however, has again brought to light the lack of transparency in the administration’s management. With some observers pointing to large-scale corruption within the Chinese military as a factor behind Li’s removal, Xi is likely poised to further tighten military discipline with possible confrontations with the United States in mind.

Li’s removal was also unusual in that his replacement has not been announced, leaving the defense minister post vacant for the time being. A new foreign minister was announced when Qin’s removal was made public.

Science and Technology Minister Wang Zhigang and Finance Minister Liu Kun, were also removed on Tuesday, but their successors were announced.

In democratic countries such as Japan, the United States and European nations, a spate of ministerial removals tends to result in criticism of those who made the appointments. However, a diplomatic source in Beijing said: “President Xi is in sole control of power and can make personnel decisions at his discretion at any time. There will be no impact on his power base.”

Corruption involving the Rocket Force, which operates intercontinental ballistic missiles and is a key element of deterrence against the United States, is said to be related to the removal of Li.

Corruption allegations

Since coming to power in the fall of 2012, Xi has rolled out an exhaustive anti-corruption campaign within the military and has been working to build a military comparable to that of the United States. According to a source familiar with the inner workings of the Chinese government, as a result of the campaign, the authority to develop and manufacture weapons has been transferred from the military industry to each force such as the army, navy, air and rocket.

As a result, however, the authority of the forces increased, leading to “deepening of new corruption issues,” according to the source.

Some observers have said the Rocket Force tends to attract the children and other family members of high-ranking officials, as its workload is lighter than that of the army, navy and air force, creating an environment conducive to corruption.

Li, like Xi, is one of the “second-generation reds,” or “hong er’dai,” the children of CCP officials who contributed to the founding of the nation. In the Chinese military, Li served in the space development sector for about 30 years, assuming the top post of the Equipment Development Department in 2017 after serving as the deputy commander of the strategic support command.

Some reports point to fraud cases involving construction of underground silos for ballistic missiles and fuel procurement. Allegations related to the leaking of Rocket Force’s organizational information to the United States have also been circulated.

Some related to the Chinese government speculate the scale of the corruption to be “the largest in the history of the military.” A source familiar with the inner workings of the Chinese government said, “Rampant corruption in key units to face the United States angered Xi.”

The Xi administration replaced the top two leaders of the Rocket Force with officials from the navy and the air force in a move likely to be aimed at fundamentally improving its organizational character by excluding officials originally from the Rocket Force.

According to U.S. government-sponsored Radio Free Asia, a Chinese Defense Ministry spokesperson said during an August press conference that the ministry will punish whoever was involved in corruption and will not tolerate it.