What’s up with China’s disappearing senior military officers?

In World

China’s National Defense Minister Li Shangfu has been missing for weeks. Now, he’s under investigation for corruption and out of a job — a recent trend, as several other government officials have also been removed public view, only to be fired.

This pattern of anti-corruption purges is nothing new for Chinese President Xi Jinping, who has made rooting out endemic corruption, particularly in the military, a hallmark of his tenure. But it does indicate that despite his most strenuous efforts, such misconduct is still occurring at some of the highest and most visible levels of the People’s Liberation Army — potentially hampering his ambitions to modernize the force.

Li’s tenure was remarkably brief; he was appointed to his post in March of this year, and had disappeared from public view not long after two officials from the PLA’s Rocket Force were also replaced in July of this year. China’s political machinations are extremely opaque and often compared to a “black box” — which has only gotten more severe under Chinese President Xi Jinping.

The Financial Times and the Wall Street Journal first reported Li’s ouster on Friday, citing US officials as the source of the information. Mao Ning, a spokesperson for China’s foreign ministry, didn’t address Li’s disappearance and subsequent sacking at a press briefing Friday, CNN reported, telling reporters, “I’m not aware of the situation.” The Chinese government’s unwillingness to address the disappearances and firings of several top officials in recent months has only fueled speculation and rumor, both within China and internationally.

As defense minister, Li did not oversee combat or any military campaigns, but rather played a diplomatic role, communicating with his counterparts overseas — or, in the case of the United States, refusing to pick up the phone calls of Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin in the aftermath of a February dustup over Chinese balloons drifting over US territory.

Ambassador to Japan Rahm Emanuel noticed Li’s absence September 8, posting to the platform X that Li “hasn’t been seen in public for two weeks.” Li’s last public appearance, according to the Wall Street Journal, was in Beijing on August 29, when he delivered a speech to a China-Africa security summit.

Li is just the latest in a line of military firings

Prior to taking the defense minister post, the 65-year-old Li was head of the Equipment Development Department of the Central Military Commission, the body which oversees the PLA. As the head of the EDD, Li, trained as an aerospace engineer, would have overseen all equipment and infrastructure procurement across the branches.

In July, Bloomberg reported that Li’s former department was under investigation for a number of corruption issues, including “leaking information on projects and army units” stretching back to 2017, which overlaps with Li’s tenure as head of the EDD. It’s not yet clear whether the two are directly connected — and it may never be.

They are, in a sense, related though, as Xi has made fighting corruption a hallmark of his career. In recent years he has particularly targeted the PLA, where corruption is just the name of the game, as Roderick Lee, director of research at the Air University’s China Aerospace Studies Institute (CASI), told Vox in an interview. [Disclaimer: though Lee is an employee of the US Department of Defense, he shared his own opinions and analysis with Vox and does not speak on behalf of the DoD.]

“Corruption was, essentially, the name of the game in the PLA” before Xi began his anti-corruption purge in 2014. Corruption occurs in two main areas: contracts procurement and promotions.

“Essentially the only way you could rise through the ranks in the PLA is you’d have to pay into the system,” Lee said. Senior officers, like those at Li’s level, would have had to pay into that promotions pipeline early on in their careers. “None of them are clean — in fact I’d argue that probably no one who’s a general or a flag officer in the PLA is clean, even today.”

So high-level military appointments have to take that into account, essentially leaving Xi and the military apparatus with “the most acceptable, but still corrupt officials.”

In July, Rocket Force Commander Li Yuchao was removed along with his deputy Liu Guangbin and a former deputy Zhang Zhenzhong and reportedly put under investigation by the Central Military Commission’s anti-corruption unit, according to an August podcast episode from the German Marshall Fund.

According to the Journal, Li was taken in for questioning last week. If he is also removed from his role in Communist Party’s Central Military Commission, which oversees the PLA and which Xi heads, he would be the first to suffer that fate since Fang Fenghui was removed from the party and sentenced to life in prison for corruption in 2019.

We might never know the truth about what happened — or why

It’s true that Xi seems to be on a major anti-corruption kick right now, between Li, Rocket Force leadership, Qin Gang, and a crackdown on corruption in the healthcare industry, but that’s always been a major part of his agenda.

Qin’s firing followed the same pattern as Li’s and Rocket Forces commanders’ — disappearing for a couple weeks, then sacked. There were sordid rumors about why he was fired, but never an official explanation as to why.

“In the case of Li, just like Qin Gang before, it’s perplexing that this happens so soon after a high profile elevation to a prominent role,” David Stroup, a lecturer in Chinese politics at the University of Manchester told Vox. “It’s possible that there is something going on inside the party leadership that simply isn’t visible from the outside,” or that Xi simply didn’t do a great job vetting his choices before promoting them.

Qin’s sacking likely isn’t related to the military firings and investigations — which might not even be related to each other. Unless official charges are filed against Li and other officers, the international community might not ever know what happened.

What Xi and the government have stated publicly is that China wants a “modern military” by 2027. If the rumors and speculation about corruption in the EDD and Rocket Force — China’s most sensitive and vaunted military office — are true, that would certainly get in the way of those modernization goals.

“We know that corruption in the PLA runs deep enough for this to be a factor,” one US official told the Journal. “And we know it’s had a profound effect on what they’re able to do, and how they do it.”

Xi has also said that he wants to have the military completely under Party control. Technically, it already is, due to the structure of the CMC. But the reality may be something quite different if the PLA is beholden to its own corrupt economy.

Ultimately, the PLA’s entrenched corruption started far before XI’s tenure. Though younger officers may see it as less of a way of life than previous generations, that kind of culture is difficult — and maybe impossible — to fully root out. As these investigations continue, there will likely be more arrests and sackings — but we may never know exactly why.

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