Where is Li Shangfu? China’s missing defence minister highlights Xi’s total grip on power

<span>Photograph: Caroline Chia/Reuters</span>
Photograph: Caroline Chia/Reuters

Three weeks after he was last seen in public, there is still no official confirmation about what has happened to Gen Li Shangfu, China’s defence minister and the latest senior official to be seemingly swept up in China’s political purges.

Last week, Reuters reported that Li, along with eight other senior officials, was under investigation for the corrupt procurement of military equipment relating to his time at the helm of the equipment division of the Central Military Commission, the military’s ruling body, between September 2017 and October 2022. US intelligence has also made similar conclusions.

But Beijing has refused to comment on Li’s whereabouts. At a foreign ministry press conference on Monday, spokesperson Mao Ning declined to answer a question about Li, saying that it “was not a diplomacy question”. But multiple scheduled meetings between Li and foreign defence officials have already been cancelled, with the status of future meetings uncertain.

Related: Where is Qin Gang? China’s foreign minister has not been seen in public for three weeks

Li’s disappearance is particularly notable because he was only appointed in March. Like Qin Gang, the former foreign minister who was replaced in July, he has run into trouble less than one year after being boosted to the top ranks by Xi Jinping, China’s leader.

Xi, who took power in 2012, has made anti-corruption his signature policy. But he has now been in power long enough that he has replaced virtually all of the people at the highest level of the party with allies and loyalists, said Steve Tsang, the director of the SOAS China Institute. “So whoever he takes down now will be a Xi protege”.

Some analysts have questioned how corruption at the highest levels of the People’s Liberation Army – the armed wing of the Chinese Communist party (CCP) – could be possible more after more than a decade of Xi being the military chairman. But the anti-corruption campaign has always been about party rectification as much as graft-busting, said Tsang, meaning that no one is safe from its reach.

“High-level disappearances [are] bad for the party but they are not unexpected,” said Olivia Cheung, a research fellow at the SOAS China Institute. The party “constantly looks for and gets rid of the impure elements within itself, even if it is painful to do so … The underlying thinking is that short-term damage to the party’s image and elite cohesion is a cost to be paid in building a disciplined and effective party in the long term.”

In July, the military’s equipment department issued a rare public notice that it was investigating corruption relating to the bidding process, and the formation of private cliques, dating back to 2017. Last month two of China’s top Rocket Force generals in charge of the nuclear arsenal were replaced, in what was interpreted in an attempt to break patronage networks in the important PLA division.

Li’s time as head of the military equipment division also resulted in sanctions from Washington, which accused him of involvement the purchase of weapons from Russia’s biggest arms exporter. Beijing strongly opposes the use of sanctions and those imposed on Li were cited as a reason for him snubbing his US counterpart Lloyd Austin in Singapore in June. Military dialogue between the US and China has largely been frozen since Nancy Pelosi, the then House speaker, visited Taiwan in August last year.

Some analysts think that Li being subject to US sanctions may have boosted his career, as Beijing could use his position as defence minister to call for sanctions to be lifted if Washington wanted to resume defence minister level dialogues.

That may explain why Li, whose background is in logistics rather than combat, was appointed to the senior military position. Li’s sudden disappearance also speaks to the opaque – and perhaps flawed – vetting process that senior appointments are subject to under Xi’s rule. As the CCP has moved away from the collective leadership of a decade ago to the centralised rule of Xi, questioning Xi’s judgment has become increasingly dangerous. “Once Xi Jinping has made his decision about somebody, the vetting process is required to be patriotic,” said Tsang.

All eyes will now be on the Xiangshan Forum, a defence meeting that is slated for next month. The Chinese defence minister would normally speak at the conference, which was last held in person in 2019. If Li fails to materialise, Beijing may be forced to announce a new defence minister less than two months after the new foreign minister took office.

Additional research by Tau Yang