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Snap Insight: Chinese defence minister’s sacking reflects Xi Jinping’s deeper problems

WELLINGTON: After having been conspicuously absent for more than two months, Li Shangfu was abruptly removed as China’s defence minister on Tuesday (Oct 24). It ends weeks of intense speculation about his status but raises fresh questions about President Xi Jinping’s leadership team.

This is the second high-profile sacking in three months: Qin Gang was abruptly fired as foreign minister in July after a similarly mysterious absence. Both men are now China’s shortest-serving leaders in these portfolios.

POLITICAL LOYALTY IS NO INSURANCE

There is no evidence that General Li was removed due to his political disloyalty. A military “princeling” whose father participated in the Long March, he was one of Mr Xi’s most trusted generals, rising rapidly through the ranks.

He oversaw weapons design and procurement, and spearheaded Mr Xi’s vision of military modernisation. He was a veteran leader of China’s ambitious space programme, overseeing numerous space missions. In March, he replaced Wei Fenghe as state councillor and defence minister.

As the public face of the military, he demonstrated political loyalty to Mr Xi. In his visit to Moscow in April, General Li was reported as calling Russian President Vladimir Putin an “extraordinary” leader who made “important contributions to promoting world peace”, reinforcing Mr Xi’s commitment to the “no-limits” partnership with Russia.

CORRUPTION IN THE ROCKET FORCE?

That political loyalty is not sufficient to save Li Shangfu this time points to a graver infraction. A Reuters report in September said he was under a corruption probe over procurement of military equipment.

It is likely that General Li’s downfall is related to the recent major reshuffles in the military. On Jul 31, two People’s Liberation Army (PLA) officers with no background in nuclear and ballistic missiles were promoted to the top rank of general by commander-in-chief Xi Jinping.

Former deputy commander of the PLA Navy Wang Houbin was put in charge of the Rocket Force, replacing Li Yuchao, a career military professional in this area; and former political commissar of the Southern Theatre Command Air Force Xu Xisheng replaced Xu Zhongbo as the political commissar of the Rocket Force. Li Yuchao and Xu Zhongbo are a few years shy of the military retirement age of 65.

Li Shangfu’s predecessor, Wei Fenghe who was former commander of the Rocket Force from 2015 to 2017, was also absent from the Sep 28 state banquet celebrating the 74th anniversary of the founding of the People’s Republic of China, fuelling speculation that he had also been implicated in the corruption investigation.

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XI JINPING HAS DEEPER PROBLEMS

The fact that General Li’s replacement has not been selected is a clear reflection of deeper problems facing Xi Jinping. When Qin Gang was ousted in July, his predecessor Wang Yi was immediately named the new foreign minister.

Since the Chinese Communist Party Congress in October 2022, Mr Xi has consolidated his tremendous power. The congress had been remarkable on many counts, from Mr Xi’s unprecedented third term as party general secretary and the dramatic removal of former president Hu Jintao from the Great Hall.

Mr Xi effectively eliminated his rivals in the Politburo, surrounding himself with loyalists. Yet he is now turning against some of them because of alleged corruption. It is extremely difficult to find someone who is both loyal and clean in the Chinese military and officialdom.

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Some potential candidates for General Li’s replacement include General Zhang Youxia, the first vice chairman of the Central Military Commission (CMC); General He Weidong, second vice chairman of the CMC; and General Li Zhenli, general chief of staff.

But apparently, none of them have sufficiently earned Mr Xi’s trust to be immediately named defence minister at this moment. A real candidate might have to come from within the military, who would need to be absolutely loyal and absolutely clean – at least for the time being.

It is imperative that China put its domestic affairs in order, especially when it comes to its top leaders. This hide-and-seek game will only fuel rumours about China’s internal mess and bring down confidence in China as a responsible great power on the international stage.

Professor Bo Zhiyue is the founder and president of the Bo Zhiyue China Institute, a consulting firm providing services to government leaders and CEOs of multinational corporations, and an author on China’s elite politics.

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