China’s Defense Minister Meets His Downfall
The disappearance of Li Shangfu seems to be part of a cycle of paranoia for Chinese President Xi Jinping.
Welcome to Foreign Policy’s China Brief.
Welcome to Foreign Policy’s China Brief.
The highlights this week: Chinese Defense Minister Li Shangfu likely faces a Chinese Communist Party investigation despite no official announcement, outgoing U.S. Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Mark Milley seems to confirm what was already known about the Chinese spy balloon, and Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi begins a four-day visit to Russia.
Where Is China’s Defense Minister?
Chinese Defense Minister Li Shangfu hasn’t been seen in public for three weeks, and it seems increasingly likely that he is under investigation by the internal secret police of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). Rumors started to circulate last week and picked up momentum after Li failed to attend an important military meeting on Sept. 15. There is no official announcement about Li’s whereabouts so far, but reports citing unnamed insiders in China and high-level U.S. officials say the defense minister was detained and will be officially removed from his post.
Chinese officials fall on a regular basis. Take, as just one example from this year, Cui Maohu, the former head of the National Religious Affairs Administration, who was put under investigation in March and expelled from the CCP last month. Yet Li’s vanishing act also comes soon after the high-profile disappearance of former Foreign Minister Qin Gang, who was officially removed from his post in late July after not being seen for weeks; there is still no official announcement about an investigation involving him.
An absence of explanation is not uncommon in China, where there is often a time lag between a political figure’s fall from grace and the CCP deciding what account it wants to give to the outside world. The likely next step in Qin’s and Li’s cases may be an announcement of their expulsion from the party, but that tends to come months after an investigation begins. After that, they may face criminal charges. But because China has no independent judicial system, the real decisions about their fates will be made behind closed doors at CCP meetings.
The Wall Street Journal reported on Tuesday that senior Chinese officials were told that Qin was removed because of an extramarital affair with an unnamed woman that resulted in the birth of a child in the United States. (Similar rumors circulated online as soon as he vanished, naming a Phoenix TV anchor Fu Xiaotian, who has also disappeared from public view.) If that’s true, it likely wouldn’t be the affair alone that bought him down. Qin’s sin seems to be rendering himself vulnerable to U.S. coercion, which explains why, according to the Journal, he’s under investigation on national security grounds and not moral ones.
Meanwhile, Li’s case is probably connected to ongoing investigations into military corruption in China, especially in the procurement process. His career was made in the main satellite launch center of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA), and this fact seemingly links his case to purges inside the PLA Rocket Force in July. Li also had a hand in shaping China’s military hardware deals with Russia after it invaded Ukraine, as well as the general expansion of Beijing’s arms trade; both provided an opportunity for a bonanza of graft inside an already corrupt military.
The two cases don’t seem likely to be the result of any plot against Chinese President Xi Jinping. In China, the defense minister and the foreign minister are not as powerful as their equivalents in other countries. But the fall of two high-ranking ministers within six months of both being appointed by Xi will raise questions about the president’s judgment, which in turn will fuel his paranoia about China’s security—and Xi’s deployment of the CCP’s disciplinary forces to protect his own position.
That likely means yet more purges to come.
What We’re Following
Was the spy balloon spying? Some analysts have read recent comments by Mark Milley, the outgoing chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, as suggesting that the Chinese spy balloon that upended U.S.-China relations early this year was not actually spying. But that seems to be a misinterpretation of Milley’s words: “I would say it was a spy balloon that we know with high degree of certainty got no intelligence and didn’t transmit any intelligence back to China,” he said.
That is consistent with U.S. statements at the time that Washington was monitoring the balloon and blocking any attempts at collecting or transmitting information, as well as with the Pentagon assessment in June. Milley’s statement may have been a response to a leak in April alleging that the balloon spy was collecting information; he did say the balloon’s passage was unintentional, saying it was headed to Hawaii before high winds likely pushed it off course.
Since the incident, China has halted its spy balloon program, despite the intensification of espionage between the two superpowers. Given Xi’s usual habit of doubling down on security measures and anti-foreign rhetoric when challenged, that decision seems to indicate the whole affair was an accidental blunder.
Wang’s Russia mission. After a brief meeting with U.S. National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan over the weekend, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi is headed to Russia for a four-day tour—showing where China’s diplomatic priorities lie. Chinese state media continues to offer rhetorical support for Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, even as Beijing’s leadership keeps up a balancing act, largely out of fear of further alienating Europe.
Wang replaced Qin Gang after his disappearance, and he now holds two diplomatic roles: his more senior party position and the foreign minister title. Ironically, the fall of Li, the defense minister, may make relations with the United States slightly easier for Wang. Li faced U.S. sanctions for his dealings with Russia.
FP’s Most Read This Week
- A New Multilateralism by Gordon Brown
- The China-Russia Axis Takes Shape by Bonny Lin
- America Prepares for a Pacific War With China It Doesn’t Want by Zuri Linetsky
Tech and Business
Apple debacle. Apple continues to be a target of a new wave of Chinese nationalism, but the latest incident has an absurd twist. Online nationalists reacted with fury toward a photo of an Apple employee used in the company’s public relations material, claiming the employee was deliberately chosen because they represented Western stereotypes of Chinese people, attacking their appearance.
The employee’s braid drew particular ire; on social media, many people claimed it resembled the queue, a hairstyle imposed on the Han Chinese by their Manchu rulers from 1645 to 1911. (The queue became associated with anti-Chinese stereotypes in the United States.) However, the employee in question is a Native American person in California, whose photo appears on the Apple website in multiple countries.
Chinese state media tried to push back against the online anger, but it has continued—in part because Apple iPhones remain a status symbol in China, despite the patriotic rhetoric about domestic manufacturers such as Huawei.
Economic data gaps. The distance between official steel production figures in August—down by 4.8 percent, in accordance with a national economic plan that seeks to reduce manufacturing overcapacity and emphasize service industries—and industry data insider Mysteel, which tracked output as up by 0.2 percent, usefully highlights the ambiguous state of Chinese economic data. Such gaps are common in China, where data is distorted to meet official demands, sometimes to the ire of the National Bureau of Statistics.
There is a long history of this kind of problem with steel data, where the goals of factory owners and policymakers often conflict. But as the situation on the ground falls more out of sync with China’s vaunted Five-Year Plans at the top, it is only likely to grow worse.
James Palmer is a deputy editor at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @BeijingPalmer
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