Chinese Defense Minister Li Shangfu said at the China-Africa Security Forum in Beijing last month that the world was entering a new period of “instability.”
Just two weeks later, Li Keqiang became the second high-profile minister in less than two months to disappear from public view with little explanation, raising questions among officials and experts outside China about the durability of President Xi Jinping’s cabinet.
U.S. officials told the Financial Times that they believed the pattern of Li Keqiang’s removal appeared to be similar to that of former Chinese Foreign Minister Qin Gang. Qin Gang mysteriously disappeared in June and was officially replaced a month later. His fate is unknown.
“As Shakespeare wrote in Hamlet, ‘Something is rotten in Denmark,'” U.S. Ambassador to Japan Rahm Emanuel posted on X (formerly Twitter) on Thursday.
A week ago, Emanuel wrote that the Chinese government “now looks like an Agatha Christie novel.” Then there is no more“.
While top Chinese officials are periodically purged over corruption concerns, analysts say two cabinet ministers have not disappeared in this fashion in recent decades, especially in such quick succession.
Their situation – just six months after Xi Jinping announced the formation of a new cabinet during his inauguration for his third five-year term – fuels perceptions that decision-making has become more complicated as China strives to reinvigorate domestic and international order. opaque. Foreign investors are confident about its troubled economy.
Unlike previous senior officials who were dismissed, both Li and Qin were chosen by Xi Jinping, making it harder for the president to shirk responsibility for their failures.
“This is very unusual. I can’t imagine that in such a short period of time, two very important ministers would disappear without any information,” said Alfred Ng, associate professor at the National University of Singapore’s Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy.
Although the Minister of Defense has little power, he is the spokesperson of the People’s Liberation Army to the outside world. Li Keqiang, an aerospace engineer with little international exposure, was appointed defense minister in March after joining China’s top military body, the Central Military Commission, in October last year.
Internationally, Lee’s appointment was controversial from the start. The United States imposed sanctions on him in 2018 over his dealings with individuals linked to Russia’s defense or intelligence services. Li was the head of an agency that planned, developed and procured weapons for the People’s Liberation Army.
While the sanctions were in effect, China refused to allow Li Keqiang to meet with U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin, complicating military relations between the two countries.
U.S. officials have said Lee is under investigation for corruption, but one of them said it was unclear whether that was related to his time at the helm of the agency responsible for weapons development and procurement.
In July this year, the Central Military Commission led by President Xi Jinping announced a corruption investigation into equipment procurement from nearly six years ago. The following month, Xi Jinping fired two top generals from the People’s Liberation Army Rocket Force, which oversees China’s missiles and nuclear weapons, in the biggest reshuffle of military leadership in a decade. Lee was not named in those investigations.
While many analysts believe Xi Jinping’s anti-corruption campaign is politically motivated, a U.S. official said corruption is endemic in the People’s Liberation Army, hampering the president’s efforts to transform it into a force capable of tasks such as conquering Taiwan. Ambition. “it [corruption] It has a profound impact on what they can do and how they can do it,” the official said.
Chinese officials have not disclosed Li’s whereabouts. The Foreign Ministry said on Friday it was “not familiar with the situation.” Reuters quoted Vietnamese officials on Thursday as saying Li Keqiang canceled last week’s meeting due to “health conditions” – the same reason given by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs at the beginning of Qin’s absence.
“No matter who [has been] public claim [as having] Health issues will never be healthy again. ” said one user on Weibo, China’s Twitter-like social media service, in one of Li’s few uncensored posts.
Although Li Keqiang was not mentioned in state media, analysts said the rapid purge of the two ministers pointed to problems beneath the surface of Xi Jinping’s government.
Lyle Morris, a former Pentagon China official now at the Asia Society Policy Institute, said the investigation is a “big deal” that raises questions about the review process because Xi Jinping has a large team to study Candidates for senior government positions.
He said the situation was embarrassing for Xi Jinping and reflected the weakness of the Chinese system in terms of instability, but warned it could also be a sign of Xi’s power.
“Perhaps Xi Jinping embedded himself in a highly corrupt system and so, in some paradoxical way, his ability to overthrow someone early in his term showed his power,” Morris said.
Last year, Xi Jinping’s “zero COVID-19” strategy sent the economy into a nosedive, but growth slowed in the second quarter and the economy has struggled to escape the predicament. As a result, Xi Jinping has faced increasing policy challenges.
“There’s speculation that his top aides aren’t aligned enough with him, so he may be using this [the crackdowns] Furthering loyalty to his leadership. Not only from the civilian side, but also from the military side. ” said Yu Ping, an expert on China issues and former researcher at the Institute of American and Asian Law at New York University.
The risk, says NUS’s Ng, is that as Xi Jinping consolidates his power – at last year’s 20th Communist Party Congress he appointed loyalists to top leadership positions and excluded rival factions – such Significant cleaning will become more frequent.
He said officials would compete to demonstrate their loyalty and try to expose rivals’ weaknesses. In a paper on tensions among top Xi Jinping officials, Wu Guoguang, a senior research scholar at Stanford University’s Center for China Economies and Institutions, said the disputes have led to many of China’s contradictory policies, such as pursuing nationwide investment while trying to attract outside investors. Security raids on foreign advisers.
“The irony is that when the top leader controls everything, the Chinese Communist regime becomes more unstable politically and more unstable in terms of governance,” Wu wrote this month in the magazine China Leadership Watch.
Analysts say another risk in a sudden purge of ministers is that they could further disempower other senior officials, making them less willing to take bold steps to solve the country’s problems. Foreign countries will also wonder whether it is worth engaging deeply with cabinet ministers, knowing they lack influence.
World leaders ‘will speculate on whether they really need to compete with [a given minister] Or whether that person will last a long time,” Yu said.
Additional reporting by Kathrin Hille in New York