Friday, September 15, 2023

Li Shangfu: The top US envoy raises doubts about the absence of China's defense minister

A senior US ambassador has raised concerns on the whereabouts of China's Minister of Defense, Li Shangfu, which has reignited rumors of a possible anti-corruption campaign in the country.

Since around two weeks ago, General Li has been absent from public view, and there have been reports that he skipped several meetings.

U.S. Ambassador to Japan Rahm Emanuel tweeted that the "unemployment rate" in the Chinese government was quite high, which he interpreted as a possible explanation for Mr. Li's absence.

The dismissal of several high-ranking military officials occurred not long before Mr. Li went missing.

On Friday, The Wall Street Journal reported, citing sources in the United States and China, that Mr. Li is being demoted or somehow removed from his position.

In addition, it comes after several months have passed since Foreign Minister Qin Gang was last seen in public. There is still a lack of clarity regarding the circumstances surrounding Mr. Qin's unexpected departure and subsequent replacement in July.

In the case of Gen Li as well, the Chinese government has not made a lot of statements. According to reports, a spokeswoman for the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs responded, "not aware of the situation" when she was questioned about it earlier this week.

The last time Gen Li was seen in public was in Beijing on August 29 for a security forum with African nations. This event took place three weeks ago. It is not out of the ordinary for defense ministers to disappear from public view for a period of several weeks at a time.

General Li is a rocket scientist and aerospace engineer who started his career working at a launch center for satellites and rockets. He rose quickly through the ranks of both the military and the political elite in China.

It is reported that President Xi Jinping holds a special place in his heart for him, just as he does for Mr. Qin. In addition, he is the second cabinet minister and state councillor to vanish without a trace in recent months, following in Mr. Qin's footsteps.

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When two generals in China's rocket forces, which manage land-based missiles, were replaced at the beginning of August, rumors began to circulate online about a possible military corruption purge. These rumors have continued to grow since then. The president of the military court of the army was likewise ousted from his position some months after he was appointed.

Mr. Emanuel brought up the absence of General Li in tweets that he sent out late last week and on Friday. He also made reference to the disappearance of Mr. Qin and the other military officers.

In addition to this, he brought up the fact that General Li had recently "missed" a trip to Vietnam as well as a meeting in Beijing with the head of Singapore's navy, and he suggested that General Li may have been subject to house arrest because of this.

The outspoken ambassador, who is known for his colorful tweets, linked the absence to the mystery novel "And Then There Were None" by Agatha Christie and to Hamlet by William Shakespeare. On Friday, Mr. Emanuel posted a tweet that stated, "Something is rotten in the state of Denmark."

According to a report by Reuters that cited Vietnamese authorities, Mr. Li had abruptly dropped out of a meeting with Vietnamese defense commanders the previous week. The Vietnamese officials were told that the Chinese general had a "health condition"

Last week, Singapore's naval chief Sean Wat traveled to China and met with leaders from that country's military. The Singaporean navy has been contacted by the BBC to investigate the claim made by Mr. Emanuel.

In addition to being attributed to "health conditions," Mr. Qin's absence, which is approaching three months, has been the subject of widespread speculation that it is connected to an anti-corruption campaign as well. Since then, he has been demoted from his previous position.

Because they are subjected to stringent medical examinations on a consistent basis, it is stated that Chinese officials almost never miss important meetings due to health concerns.

There have been questions raised about Gen Li. He was sanctioned by the United States government in 2018, when he was serving as the head of the equipment development arm of the military, because of China's procurement of Russian combat aircraft and armaments.

It was speculated that Gen Li's refusal to meet his US counterpart Lloyd Austin at a defense summit in Singapore earlier this year was in response to the sanctions, which were supposed to be a sticking point for Gen Li.

According to observers, the disappearance of Gen Li demonstrates once again the opaque nature of the Chinese political leadership, while also highlighting the precarious nature of some of Mr. Xi's judgments.

"High-level disappearances and possible corruption investigations are not a good look for Xi because he approved the selection of the current leadership," says Neil Thomas, an expert on Chinese elite politics who works with the Asia Society Policy Institute.

However, he continued by saying that in the end, "Xi's leadership and overall political stability do not appear to be under threat, as none of the cadres affected are part of his inner circle."

Analyst Bill Bishop pointed out that the Chinese military has a "long history of corruption," and that President Xi, who, according to the political structure of China, also serves as the supreme head of China's military, has attempted to combat this issue, just like his predecessors did.

In spite of this, he pointed out in his most recent analysis that "it would be remarkable" that after more than a decade of Mr. Xi being in power, "there is still such high-level corruption [in the military]," and that "Xi cannot blame his predecessors for the Rocket Force officers and Li Shangfu."

He made the observation that Mr. Xi had promoted General Li, Mr. Qin, and the heads of the rocket force, and he predicted that "more purges will likely be seen as the solution."

Ian Chong, a non-resident scholar with Carnegie China, pointed out that the disappearances are taking place during a time of increased military action near Taiwan and tensions in the South China Sea. This was another point that he brought up.

near recent days, a large number of Chinese warships, including the Shandong aircraft carrier, have been observed gathering near the Taiwan Strait. This has raised concerns that another round of military exercises is about to take place.

Dr. Chong stated that some individuals "would be concerned about issues of communication, escalation, and crisis management" at this point in time due to the fact that the military and the foreign ministry are significant outward-facing aspects of the Chinese system.

These tweets by Mr. Emanuel would be considered odd for a high-level US diplomat, particularly one who is the ambassador to a significant US ally, Japan, which has a tense relationship with China.

Brad Glosserman, a senior adviser with the Pacific Forum research institute, said that the events are "perplexing," but that he is "pretty sure he has a greenlight from the White House" to be bringing out Gen Li's absence in this manner. The events themselves are "perplexing."

"It is possible that Mr. Emanuel is trying to elicit some response from China regarding the disappearance," Dr. Chong added. "It is possible that Mr. Emanuel is trying to elicit some response from China."

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