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Removal of Li Shangfu as China’s defence minister ends stratospheric career in space, military and government

The removal of Li Shangfu as China’s defence minister on Tuesday (Oct 24) marked the end of the aerospace expert’s four-decade career in which he was instrumental in the country’s ambitious space programme.

The National People’s Congress Standing Committee, China’s top lawmaking body, announced the decision at the end of a five-day meeting – after Li had disappeared from public view for more than two months.

He was also dismissed from his position as a state councillor and expelled from the Central Military Commission on Tuesday.

Li, 65, was a stalwart of China’s aerospace programme before he was appointed China’s defence minister in March, making global headlines as the country’s first defence minister on a US sanctions list.

Born in Sichuan in 1958, Li is a native of Jiangxi province in eastern China. His father, Li Shaozhu, was a Red Army veteran and former high-ranking officer of the People’s Liberation Army Railway Force. The late Li Shaozhu was famous for rebuilding logistical railways during the civil war and Korean war.

Li Shangfu joined the PLA in 1978 when he entered the National University of Defence Technology. Soon after graduation in 1982, Li joined the Xichang Satellite Launch Centre as a technician.

He became director of the centre in 2003, overseeing it as it became the pride of China’s space programme. In 2007, he was in charge of the Chang’e 1 mission – the launch of China’s first uncrewed spacecraft to orbit the moon.

During his 10-year tenure as the centre’s director, Li oversaw numerous rocket launches, including the Chang’e 2 lunar probe in 2010.

In an interview with state broadcaster CCTV in 2010, Li said his dream was to continue doing his job for eight more years and carry out 100 more rocket launches before retirement.


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However, Li was chosen by the military’s top brass in 2013 and named chief of staff of the PLA General Armaments Department (GAD). The GAD was then the Chinese military’s leading body responsible for policymaking and the supervision of weapons system design, development, production and procurement.

Three years later, and as part of President Xi Jinping’s overhaul of the PLA’s high command, the GAD was reorganised into the Equipment Development Department (EDD) of the Central Military Commission.

Li, however, was assigned to an even more important job. Instead of joining the EDD, he was promoted to deputy commander of the newly established Strategic Support Force – an elite body tasked by Xi to spearhead the PLA’s modernisation drive.

A year later, Li was named head of the CMC’s equipment department, a role he held from 2017 to 2022. He was placed under US sanction in 2018 over the alleged procurement of weapons from Russia.

While he was at the helm of the military, Li still took part in China’s space programme, including the development of China’s Chang’e 4 lunar spacecraft that landed on the dark side of the moon – a lunar region that had not been explored before – in January 2019.

He was also the chief commander of China’s Shenzhou-12 manned space mission that sent three astronauts to its Tiangong space station in June 2021.


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As the public face of the PLA, Li has been active in military diplomacy since being named defence chief in March.

He visited India in April and attended a Shanghai Cooperation Organisation meeting – the first visit to the country by a Chinese defence minister since a clash in the Galwan Valley caused the deaths of at least 20 Indian soldiers and four Chinese troops in June 2020.

Li has also built closer military ties with Russia, with two visits to Moscow and three meetings with his Russian counterpart, Sergei Shoigu, in six months. They pledged to deepen military cooperation despite mounting pressure from the US-led West over Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Li also visited Belarus in August.

In June, he led a Chinese delegation to the Shangri-La Dialogue in Singapore, where he met his Singaporean counterpart Ng Eng Hen and top defence officials from Japan, Korea and Germany. But he did not officially meet US Defence Secretary Lloyd Austin and declined a side meeting with the Pentagon boss at the conference.

Li was last seen in public in late August when he attended a China-Africa security forum in Beijing.

This article was first published on SCMP.

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