China sacks defence minister Li Shangfu; ex-foreign minister Qin Gang also removed as state councillor

This is the second such leadership shake-up in recent months, after Mr Qin was sacked as foreign minister in July.

Lim Min Zhang and Elizabeth Law

Lim Min Zhang and Elizabeth Law

The Straits Times


China has removed Defence Minister Li Shangfu (left) and former foreign minister Qin Gang was also removed from his position as state councillor. PHOTOS: AFP, REUTERS/THE STRAITS TIMES

October 25, 2023

BEIJING – China has sacked Defence Minister Li Shangfu, state broadcaster CCTV reported, a month after multiple reports said that he had been placed under investigation.

He has been absent from public view without explanation for two months.

In an announcement during the evening news broadcast, it was announced that General Li had been removed from his positions as state councillor and defence minister following a decision by the country’s top lawmaking body, the National People’s Congress (NPC) Standing Committee.

No replacement for Gen Li was announced, and no reason was given for the changes.

Former foreign minister Qin Gang was also stripped of his state councillor title – a Cabinet position that ranks below vice-premiers and above ministers, the news broadcast reported.

This is the second such leadership shake-up in recent months, after Mr Qin was sacked as foreign minister in July.

Gen Li’s removal comes just before a high-level security forum is scheduled to take place in Beijing from Oct 29 to 31. China’s defence minister typically plays a key role at the event – the Xiangshan Forum – in speaking at the opening ceremony and hosting foreign counterparts.

US-sanctioned Gen Li, a former chief of the Equipment Development Department, spent just over half a year as defence minister.

Analysts have raised questions about political stability in China after Mr Qin was removed following a month-long absence.

Gen Li was also removed from his post as a member of the Central Military Commission, China’s top military command, according to a Tuesday report from the official Xinhua news agency on the NPC Standing Committee meeting.

Gen Li’s removal follows recent abrupt leadership changes in the People’s Liberation Army (PLA), which is seen as part of an ongoing corruption purge that has implicated the top leadership of its elite Rocket Force unit.

General Li Yuchao, the unit’s former commander, was not seen for months before he was replaced in July, along with his deputy.

On China’s Ministry of Defence website, Gen Li Shangfu’s last reported activity was at the Third China-Africa Peace and Security Forum held in Beijing on Aug 29, where he delivered a keynote speech.

He subsequently disappeared from public view, and missed several meetings with foreign counterparts, including with Vietnamese and Singaporean military leaders.

Associate Professor Alfred Wu from the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy in Singapore said Gen Li’s case – about corruption – appears to be more clear-cut than Mr Qin’s.

No official reason has been disclosed for Mr Qin’s removal as foreign minister in July, but later reports have suggested it was because of an alleged affair with a Hong Kong reporter while he was serving as China’s ambassador to the United States.

The removal of Mr Qin’s state councillor title need not mean that the investigations into him are close to completion, said Prof Wu.

“The disciplinary committee usually has its own pace, and they need to follow the top leadership’s instructions. But it’s clear that Qin Gang cannot go back to the public sector.”

Observers are now looking to see who will be the public face of the PLA at the Xiangshan Forum, which representatives from more than 90 countries and international organisations are slated to attend, including a delegation from the United States.

Professor Steve Tsang of the University of London’s SOAS China Institute said neither Mr Qin nor Gen Li were key policymakers for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Ministry of Defence, respectively.

“Chinese ministers are effectively chief operating officers, not CEOs,” he said.

On the impact of Gen Li’s removal on China’s efforts to modernise its military, Prof Tsang said President Xi Jinping calls the shots on all major policy matters, including military modernisation.

“This has not changed.”

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