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‘And then there were none’: After Chinese foreign minister, now defence minister goes missing

Chinese defence minister Li Shangfu delivers his speech at a session of the 11th Moscow Conference on International Security during the International Military-Technical Forum Army-2023 (EPA)
Chinese defence minister Li Shangfu delivers his speech at a session of the 11th Moscow Conference on International Security during the International Military-Technical Forum Army-2023 (EPA)

The whereabouts of China’s defence minister have been called into question as he has not been seen in public for almost two weeks now.

Rumours about General Li Shangfu going missing from the public eye have come after president Xi Jinping replaced a number of top Chinese government officials, including his foreign minister and two army generals who oversaw the country’s nuclear and missile arsenal.

The government reshuffles, of which the sacking of foreign minister Qin Gang had raised the most eyebrows, has elicited an interesting response from a top US diplomat who likened them to an Agatha Christie novel.

“President Xi’s cabinet lineup is now resembling Agatha Christie’s novel ‘And Then There Were None’,” posted Rahm Emanuel, the US envoy to Japan, on Twitter/X. “First, foreign minister Qin Gang goes missing, then the rocket force commanders go missing, and now defence minister Li Shangfu hasn’t been seen in public for two weeks.”

“Who’s going to win this unemployment race? China’s youth or Xi’s cabinet? #MysteryInBeijingBuilding” he said.

General Li was last seen in public on 29 August, when he delivered a keynote speech at the third China-Africa Peace and Security Forum in Beijing.

In the same month, reports emerged that Mr Xi had, in a major reshuffle, replaced two rocket force generals who oversaw the country’s nuclear and missile arsenal.

The two generals – Li Yuchao, chief of the People’s Liberation Army’s (PLA) rocket force unit, and his deputy, Liu Guangbin – have not been seen in public for months.

Similarly, it came to light in July that foreign minister Qin Gang had not been seen in public for more than three weeks.

Mr Qin was last seen on 25 June when he met visiting officials from Sri Lanka, Russia and Vietnam. Since then, the 57-year-old diplomat, a close confidante of Mr Xi, has not been seen in public amid rumours of his extramarital affair with a TV presenter.

“I have no information to offer,” foreign ministry spokesperson Mao Ning was quoted as saying by a reporter from German newspaper Die Presse, on being asked about the rumours.

Mr Qin’s predecessor Wang Yi had then stepped into the senior role.

China’s former foreign minister Qin Gang as seen on 14 April (AP)
China’s former foreign minister Qin Gang as seen on 14 April (AP)

A week after the appointment of new generals to the rocket force that also occurred in July, the South China Morning Post reported the move to be part of a new anti-corruption drive.

“As well as its role in the country’s nuclear deterrent, the rocket force is also an important element in Beijing’s efforts to ramp up the military pressure on Taiwan,” said the SCMP report.

Mr Xi also made comments as recently as on 9 September about maintaining a “high level of integrity and unity of the armed forces, and ensuring the military stays stable and secure”, reported Chinese state-run media Xinhua.

Meanwhile, the defence minister’s absence from the public stage comes after China’s military launched an investigation into corruption cases associated with hardware procurement dating back over five years, Bloomberg reported.

The PLA’s Equipment Development Department identified eight specific concerns it was looking into, including “leaking information on projects and army units” and helping certain companies secure bids.

In August, The Atlantic published a report in which Beijing-based author Michael Schuman wrote, “China’s communist regime has always been opaque. But the more China’s global power rises, the more problematic the Communist Party’s secrecy becomes.”

“Secrecy is the default position of the Communist Party anyway, but it has been put on steroids under Xi,” Steve Tsang, director of the SOAS China Institute at the University of London, was quoted as saying.