China’s Defense Minister Li Shangfu was fired on Tuesday two months after he disappeared from public view, becoming the second high-profile minister to lose his job recently without any official explanation.
Li was also removed from his state positions as a member of the Central Military Commission – a powerful body headed by Chinese leader Xi Jinping who ultimately commands the armed forces – and as one of China’s five state councillors – a senior position in the cabinet that outranks a regular minister, state broadcaster CCTV reported Tuesday.
The decision was approved by the standing committee of the country’s rubber-stamp legislature, the National People’s Congress, according to CCTV. The committee did not name any successor to Li.
The general’s disappearance follows a series of unexplained personnel shakeups that have roiled the country’s upper ranks, including the dramatic ousting of former Foreign Minister Qin Gang in July.
Qin was also removed as a state councillor on Tuesday, CCTV reported.
The disappearance and dismissal of two senior ministers in quick succession has raised questions about the governance of Xi, who has made China’s political system even more opaque as he concentrates power and enforces strict party discipline.
Xi has also ramped up a campaign to bolster national security, seeking to eliminate any perceived threats and vulnerabilities to the ruling Communist Party amid rising tensions with the West.
Li’s ousting, ironically, has removed a major roadblock for the resumption of high-level military talks between China and the United States.
Li was sanctioned by the US in 2018 over China’s purchase of Russian weapons, and Beijing has repeatedly suggested that the US defense secretary won’t get a meeting with Li unless the sanctions were revoked.
In China, the defense minister is a largely ceremonial role, serving as the public face of military diplomacy with other countries. Unlike the US defense secretary and other international equivalents, the Chinese defense minister does not have command power, which resides with the Central Military Commission.
Li and Qin still retain their positions within the Communist Party, which analysts say are likely to be removed at a party meeting later this year.
Weeks before Li vanished from public view, Xi convened the military’s top brass in Beijing for a meeting, where he emphasized political loyalty, discipline and the party’s “absolute leadership” over the armed forces.
Days after that meeting, Xi sacked the two top generals of the PLA Rocket Force, an elite unite overseeing the nation’s arsenal of nuclear and ballistic missiles, sparking concerns of a broader purge in the military.
The Wall Street Journal reported that Li was taken away in September by authorities for questioning, citing a person close to decision making in Beijing.
The Financial Times also reported that the US government believes the defense minister has been placed under investigation, citing American officials. Neither of the reports cited a reason for the investigation.
Asked whether Li was under investigation last month, a Defense Ministry spokesperson said he was “not aware of the situation.”
It’s unclear if any disciplinary actions have been or will be taken against Li.
Li, 65, cut his teeth at one of China’s main satellite-launch sites in the southwestern province of Sichuan, rising through the ranks to become its director.
After three decades at the launch center, he was promoted to work in the PLA’s headquarters on armaments in 2013, soon after Xi rose to power.
Li is believed to be a protege of General Zhang Youxia, Xi’s childhood friend and closest ally in the military. In a sign of his prominence, Zhang was promoted to first vice chairman of the Central Military Commission during the leadership reshuffle last October despite having well passed the unofficial retirement age.
From 2017 to 2022, Li was in charge of China’s weapon procurement as the head of the Central Military Commission’s Equipment Development Department, a position Zhang previously held.
In July, days before the two top generals at Rocket Force were abruptly removed, the Equipment Development Department announced a fresh crackdown on corrupt procurement practices, calling for tips on questionable activities dating back to 2017 – coinciding with the time Li took the helm of the department.
Li was last seen in public on August 29, when he delivered a keynote speech at the China-Africa Peace and Security Forum in Beijing. He last traveled outside China in mid-August on a trip to Russia and Belarus.