In 1971, Lin Biao, hailed by China as Mao Zedong’s successor, fell from grace, fled the country and was killed in an aircrash in Mongolia. Despite his prominence, it was weeks before the public was told of his death, and months before any explanation was offered. The recent spate of disappearances from China’s top echelons is hardly as seismic. They have happened in calmer political waters, far from the Cultural Revolution’s turmoil. But they speak to the way that politics still operates in Beijing. The glaring absences of senior officials are eventually followed by a belated narrative of their downfall in the rumour mill and then state media.
When Qin Gang, the foreign minister, vanished from public view in June, it was particularly conspicuous given his diplomatic role. It was almost a month before authorities confirmed that he had been removed from his post. A few weeks later, China’s defence minister, Li Shangfu, also failed to appear at scheduled meetings with foreign officials. Reuters has reported that he is being investigated over corruption in military procurement. The two most senior generals overseeing nuclear and conventional land-based missiles had already been replaced at the beginning of August. One was reportedly taken away by corruption investigators.
Corruption has been endemic for years. China’s leader, Xi Jinping, has pursued a sweeping campaign against graft since taking power, though in a corrupt system the choice of targets is often driven more by politics than the scale of an individual’s offence. More recently, he has stressed the need to tighten party control of the army.
Mr Xi has also put a premium on national security. Reports suggested some foreigners had an unusually detailed understanding of the rocket force – triggering suspicion of its leaders. Mr Qin, it is alleged, had a child with a woman to whom he is not married via a surrogate mother in the US. The woman’s social media posts, the fact that surrogacy is illegal in China, and the existence of a child with US citizenship might all be thought to make him vulnerable to influence.
Two things are striking about the recent cases, however. The first is that Mr Xi has filled senior positions with his own men; the generals were his picks and he promoted Mr Qin and Mr Li only months ago. Their removal raises questions about his judgment, as Lin’s case did about Mao’s. The second is that, while the ministerial posts are less senior than they would be in other nations, their high international profile means that these disappearances were guaranteed to attract global scrutiny and awkward questions.
The party’s silence speaks to its confidence. It is not merely that power has no need to give account. It is that the silence in turn expresses and magnifies its domination. Where subjugation is most complete, the silence is most enduring. Almost six years after she disappeared, it has emerged that the Uyghur scholar Rahile Dawut was sentenced to life imprisonment for endangering national security – an absurd charge for an acclaimed academic who had been lauded by authorities before the repression in Xinjiang intensified. Her case reflects the broader treatment of Uyghurs, an estimated million of whom have been jailed or arbitrarily detained since 2017, on the flimsiest of pretexts. Unlike Mr Qin and Mr Li, they did not seek out power; power sought them. In most cases their disappearance will be noted only by those who love them. It is no less deeply felt.