China defence minister's absence at top military meeting raises eyebrows

General Li Shangfu is the second high-ranking minister and ruling Communist Party of China member to go 'missing' since July this year

Representative image (photo: Getty Images)
Representative image (photo: Getty Images)


Speculation that 'missing' Chinese defence minister General Li Shangfu may have been removed and detained has heightened after he was conspicuously absent at a meeting of the Central Military Commission (CMC) in Beijing on Friday, 15 September.

Regarded as a close confidante of President Xi Jinping, Li has not been seen in public since early this month, and also did not attend a meeting with senior Vietnamese defence officials on 7 and 8 September.

Li is the second high-ranking minister and ruling Communist Party of China (CPC) official to go 'missing' since July this year.

He was conspicuously absent from a meeting on Friday of the CMC, the overall high command of the Chinese military headed by President Xi, according to footage aired on state broadcaster CCTV, extending an unexplained public absence to its third week, the Hong Kong-based South China Morning Post reported on Saturday.

Besides his presidency, the 70-year-old Xi, regarded as the most powerful leader in China since Mao Zedong, heads the CPC and the CMC too.

The Friday meeting discussed the political education of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA). Three of the seven-member CMC — He Weidong, the commission’s vice-chairman, admiral Miao Hua, who supervises political affairs, and rocket force general Zhang Shengmin, who is in charge of disciplinary issues — attended the meeting, the Post said.

Also not in attendance were General Liu Zhenli, chief of staff of the joint staff department, and General Zhang Youxia, Xi’s trusted ally and the first-ranked CMC vice-chair.

He Weidong, who chaired the meeting, asked the PLA commanders to strengthen their political conviction and step up combat readiness, the Post reported, quoting official media.

There has been no official explanation yet for Li’s absence. However, his name still figures as a member of the CMC on the official Chinese defence ministry website.

Earlier, foreign minister Qin Gang, who was not seen publicly for weeks, prompting speculation about his detention, was replaced by veteran diplomat and director of CPC’s foreign affairs commission Wang Yi in July by a resolution of the Chinese Parliament, the National People’s Congress.

While the sudden replacement of two high-profile ministers sparked rumours of purges at the top of the government and the party, they also puzzled analysts as both Qin and Li were close confidantes of Xi and handpicked by him for the top posts.

Li’s absence follows a major shakeup in the PLA rocket (missile) force in which its commander, Li Yuchao, and political commissar Xu Zhongbo, were both replaced without official explanation. He Weidong headed the rocket force before he was elevated as a minister.

Li, an aerospace engineer and PLA general, was appointed defence minister even though he was sanctioned by the US in 2018 for the purchase of Russian Sukhoi Su-35 fighter jets and S-400 surface-to-air missiles by China’s equipment development department (EDD) in violation of US sanctions on Russia.

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