Li Shangfu’s dismissal as China’s defence minister came with no details, but a few clues, observers say

Beijing has remained silent over why General Li Shangfu – now China’s shortest-serving defence minister – was sacked, but signs leading up to his dismissal suggested that he may have been implicated in corruption, against which President Xi Jinping has launched an aggressive campaign since taking power in 2012.

Li’s fall came after multiple efforts by the Communist Party to ramp up scrutiny over corruption in areas closely related to him.
On July 26, the equipment development department of China’s top state military command, the Central Military Commission (CMC), published a notice asking the public to report any abuse of power, leaking of secrets or other irregularities in how equipment tenders had been assessed since October 2017. The notice did not mention Li, but he had begun to serve as head of the department only a month before.

China’s military top brass called to front lines to probe problems

Just over a month earlier, on June 18, 2023, the CMC said it had released a code of conduct governing how military leaders socialise with others, including government officials, family and friends, the media and religious groups. The CMC said the requirements, which were not disclosed, were intended to improve party discipline and ensure that disciplinary departments could hold military officials accountable for questionable conduct.

Before Li’s downfall, at least three senior officers with the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) Rocket Force were under investigation, two sources told the South China Morning Post in July. In the same month, Beijing parachuted in two generals to the top two positions in charge of the rocket force, the service branch that oversees China’s nuclear arsenal.
Li’s abrupt departure was the second unexplained top leadership shake-up in three months. But unlike the first case, where Qin Gang, the former foreign minister, was replaced in July by his predecessor Wang Yi, Beijing has so far named no replacement for Li.

Unlike Qin, Li was stripped of all his government titles at once: minister, state councillor and CMC member.

Having all of his government positions removed at the same time indicated that Li’s situation was much more severe than Qin’s, said Liang Guoliang, a Hong Kong-based military observer.

“More signs have shown the public that Li was a rat in the PLA warehouse,” he said. “That is also why the Central Military Commission kicked him out this time in one go. Li was indeed the top decision-maker for the PLA’s weapon procurement and development projects – his problem could ruin the entire PLA.”
A person close to the PLA said Li’s case was handled in a “special and abnormal way” during an anti-corruption campaign within the military that probed a number of senior generals in the strategic support force, the rocket force and the navy, many of whom had served under Li during his stints in various equipment departments.

The person, who asked not to be named, added that the origins of many corruption investigations within the PLA could be traced to the fourth phase of China’s Golden Tax System, which was launched early this year. It uses big data and artificial intelligence to trace the capital sources of taxpayers and private companies, and is known for its efficiency in spotting loopholes.

Xi sees fighting corruption as maintaining the PLA’s “political advantage”, while keeping the military under the absolute control of the ruling Communist Party. In 2017, five years into his tenure as party leader, state media praised his anti-corruption campaign, reporting that more than 100 PLA officials above the corps level, including former CMC vice-chairmen Xu Caihou and Guo Boxiong, had been investigated since Xi took power.

li shangfus dismissal as chinas defence minister came with no details but a few clues observers say


Xi Jinping stresses party leadership as parliament draws to close

Xi Jinping stresses party leadership as parliament draws to close

In a lengthy profile of Xi, the Xinhua news agency claimed that the number of officials had exceeded the number of generals who died during the communist revolution that led to the People’s Republic.

Xi’s campaign against corruption has been deemed essential to military modernisation, and Li’s sudden removal suggested serious disciplinary issues within the PLA despite the aggressive anti-corruption drive, according to Dr Olivia Cheung, a research fellow at the Soas China Institute in London, who specialises in Xi’s ideology and the Chinese political system.

The PLA has set out to become a world-class military by 2049, meaning parity with US forces, through modernising arms, training and procedures.

“This will no doubt result in Xi doubling down his effort in re-politicising the PLA as first and foremost ‘the party’s military’, that has iron discipline and unwavering ideological conviction,” Cheung said.

Xi’s anti-graft drive has become more political, and the fight’s far from over

Zhou Chenming, a researcher with the Beijing-based Yuan Wang military science and technology think tank, said the fall of Li and other senior generals might damage Xi’s prestige, but would not deter him from rooting out corruption in the PLA.

Xi’s campaign had already halted the collective buying and selling of military ranks, he said.

“But military reforms have also resulted in corrupt activities becoming hidden and out-of-the-way, which requires targeting with a more ironhanded approach, since military corruption is a matter of national security.”

South China Morning Post

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