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China removes Li Shangfu as defence minister

BEIJING: China removed Li Shangfu from his position as defence minister and state councillor on Tuesday (Oct 24), in the second ousting of a senior leader in three months. 

Qin Gang, who was removed as foreign minister in July, was also stripped of his state councillor position on Tuesday.

China’s top legislators, the Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress, approved the removal of both men, state broadcaster CCTV reported.

No explanation was given for the removal. No replacement for Li was appointed, leaving the country without a defence minister as it prepares to host foreign defence officials at the Beijing Xiangshan Forum from Oct 29 to Oct 31.

Science and technology minister Wang Zhigang and finance minister Liu Kun were also removed from their posts, to be replaced by current Ministry of Science and Technology party secretary Yin Hejun and finance ministry party secretary Lan Fo’an respectively, according to CCTV.

The downfall of Qin and Li “is not flattering for (Xi’s) leadership because the removals suggest he picked the wrong guys”, Yun Sun, senior fellow and director of the China Program at the Stimson Center in Washington, told AFP.

“But at the same time, his willingness to correct course despite the optics suggests he is confident that such decisions do not have major repercussions,” Sun said, adding that she believed “Xi’s control and power are unparalleled”.

Any possible investigation into Li is “likely to continue for a while and we will not know the true reason for a long time”, Sun said.

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Li, 65, disappeared from public view two months ago when he skipped a meeting in Vietnam.

Reuters reported last month that he was under investigation for corruption related to equipment procurement and development.

Li had been appointed to his post in March. He is watched closely by diplomats and other observers because, like Qin, he was also one of China’s five State Councillors, a cabinet position that ranks higher than a regular minister.

He rose to prominence under President Xi Jinping’s pursuit of military might during his decade in power while China’s relations with the United States soured over issues such as Taiwan.

As an aerospace engineer who worked on China’s satellite programme, Li’s history as a technocrat was helpful in trying to meet Xi’s goals for the People’s Liberation Army (PLA), experts have said.

In 2016, Li was named deputy commander of the PLA’s fledgling Strategic Support Force, an elite group tasked with accelerating the development of China’s space and cyber warfare capabilities.

He then headed the military’s procurement unit from 2017 until he became defence minister.

In a rare notice in July, the unit said it was looking to “clean up” its bidding process and invited the public to report irregularities dating back to 2017. There has been no update on possible findings.

Also read:

Commentary: What’s going on with China’s surprise military shake-up?

Snap Insight: Foreign Minister Qin Gang’s abrupt removal is embarrassing for Beijing and Xi Jinping
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