Why do Chinese politicians keep disappearing?

Defence minister Li Shangfu is latest in a string of unexplained absences, renewing speculation of a purge in Beijing

Illustration of Chinese Defence Minister Li Shangfu
Li Shangfu has not been seen in public for two weeks and is reportedly under investigation
(Image credit: Illustrated / Getty Images)

Chinese defence minister Li Shangfu has been stripped of his responsibilities and placed under investigation, US officials believe.

Li, who has not been seen in public for two weeks, was "taken away last week by authorities for questioning", a source "close to decision making in Beijing" told The Wall Street Journal (WSJ).

The "mystery" around Li and other vanished officials has "prompted new questions about China's governance," which has "doubled down on secrecy", it added. It has also heightened speculation that a corruption purge is underway in Beijing.

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What did the papers say?

Li's unexplained absence "mirrors" the disappearances of other senior officials recently, said the WSJ. In July, Beijing "abruptly removed" Qin Gang as foreign minister after he "vanished without explanation", and within days President Xi Jinping named a new commander for China's strategic missile force, "ousting a general who hadn't been seen in public for months".

Vietnamese officials said that Li abruptly cancelled a meeting last week because of a "health condition", reported Reuters. But there's scepticism about this claim because in the run-up to Qin's ousting, the Chinese foreign ministry explained his absence from official events as being health-related.

"Speculation of a military corruption purge first began to mount online in early August," said the BBC. Two generals in China's rocket forces, which "control land-based missiles", were replaced and the president of the army's military court was also removed, just "months after his appointment".

A US official told the WSJ that the "trouble" surrounding Li pointed to "deep-seated issues" that Beijing "continues to grapple with" years into Xi’s campaign to shake up China's military, with "anticorruption purges and structural reforms". The disappearance "could be the latest sign of turmoil" in Xi's government, agreed The Japan Times.

Therefore, the investigation into Li "raises questions about the effectiveness of the anti-corruption campaign" that Xi, who serves as chair of China's Central Military Commission, had "pursued against the armed forces", said the Financial Times.

Dennis Wilder, a former CIA expert on China's military, told the paper that the removals suggest that Xi's "vetting process for selecting top officials" is "deeply flawed" and "suggests corruption is commonplace within the system despite Xi's decade-long campaign against it".

Xi has the "HR problem from hell", said Bloomberg after Qin was removed from his post in July, as that exit showed the "tough challenge the Chinese strongman faces in finding reliable younger leaders".

Rahm Emanuel, the US envoy to Japan who is known for attention-grabbing tweets, wrote on X  that the "unemployment rate" in the Chinese government was very high. He also compared the absence to an Agatha Christie mystery "And Then There Were None", noted the BBC. "As Shakespeare wrote in Hamlet, 'Something is rotten in the state of Denmark,'" he said.

What next?

There are mixed predictions on whether Li's removal will help or hinder US-China military relations. It will boost the ties, said the Financial Times, by "removing the obstacle" that Beijing insisted would prevent any meeting with US defence secretary Lloyd Austin.

Any purge of Li could improve the two nations' "military ties", agreed The Japan Times, because the Chinese defence chief has been "subject to sanctions by Washington since 2018 in connection with China's purchase of Russian weapons".

However, the BBC pointed out that Emanuel's tweets "would be seen as unusual" for a high-level US diplomat, "especially one who is ambassador to a major US ally, Japan, which has a fraught relationship with China".

Ian Chong, a non-resident scholar with Carnegie China, told the broadcaster: "It is possible that Mr Emanuel is trying to elicit some response from China regarding the disappearance."

There are also predictions of further ministerial casualties after the second exit in three months. "It could be even worse than that," a US official told The Washington Post in a separate report on Li, alluding to the potential for further purges.

Meanwhile, it could take a while for Li's fate to become officially known, said the paper. Chinese military websites still list him as minister of defence and "traditionally, when Chinese officials are ousted for corruption or other disciplinary crimes", Beijing "refrains from citing a reason, and confirmation can take months or even years", it said.

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Chas Newkey-Burden has been part of The Week Digital team for more than a decade and a journalist for 25 years, starting out on the irreverent football weekly 90 Minutes, before moving to lifestyle magazines Loaded and Attitude. He was a columnist for The Big Issue and landed a world exclusive with David Beckham that became the weekly magazine’s bestselling issue. He now writes regularly for The Guardian, The Telegraph, The Independent, Metro, FourFourTwo and the i new site. He is also the author of a number of non-fiction books.