They enjoyed Xi Jinping’s favor and trust. They now appear to be disappearing.
The disappearances of a number of senior Chinese officials in recent months have led to increased speculation about whether Mr. Xi is starting a purge, especially of those connected to the military.
Defense Minister Li Shangfu, who hasn’t been spotted in public for a few weeks, appears to be the most recent individual to appear to have lost favor.
His absence was first not noticed as strange, but after a senior US ambassador brought it up, attention was drawn to it. General Li, who previously oversaw the People’s Liberation Army (PLA)’s weaponry purchases, was reportedly under investigation for buying military hardware, according to a Reuters story.
His “disappearance” comes a few weeks after the dismissals of a military court judge, two senior members of the Rocket Forces, the military branch in charge of nuclear missiles.
New rumors are also claiming that several members of the central military commission of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), which governs the armed forces, are now under investigation.
Only “health reasons” have been provided as an official justification for these removals. In this space, speculative activity has exploded.
The key hypothesis is that the PLA is being severely punished for corruption by the authorities.
The military has been on high alert; in July, it made an unusual appeal for information about corruption in the previous five years, asking the public for tips. According to checks by BBC Monitoring, Mr. Xi also started a new series of inspections, traveling across the nation to visit five military bases since April.
According to James Char, a research scholar at Singapore’s Nanyang Technological University who focuses on the link between the CCP and the military, corruption has long been an issue in the military, especially since China started liberalizing its economy in the 1970s.
China spends more than a trillion yuan on the military annually, with some of that amount going toward procurement deals that cannot be fully disclosed due to national security concerns. China’s one-party centralised structure adds to this lack of transparency.
Dr. Char noted that China’s military forces are under the CCP’s sole control, unlike other militaries that are exposed to public inspection.
Although Mr. Xi has made some progress in reducing corruption in the armed forces and partially rehabilitating its image, Dr. Char said that “rooting out corruption is a formidable if not impossible undertaking” because it would necessitate “systemic redesigns” that the authoritarian state, she feared, is still averse to.
Such purges will continue to take place “until the CCP government is willing to establish a proper legal system no longer sanctioned by itself.”
However, the disappearances can also be attributed to the Chinese government’s growing paranoia as it negotiates its complex relationship with the US.
A more comprehensive counter-espionage law went into force in China in July, providing investigators more authority and scope. Soon after, the Chinese state security ministry officially urged people to assist them in thwarting spies.
General Li’s absence is similar to that of former foreign minister Qin Gang, whose dismissal in July also sparked intense suspicion. The Wall Street Journal reported last week that Mr. Qin was under investigation for an alleged extramarital relationship that gave birth to a kid in the US.
“Having an affair is not disqualifying in elite [Communist Party] circles, but having one with someone who may be suspected of having ties to foreign intelligence and producing a child holding the passport of your key geopolitical rival, if not enemy, may now be,” remarked China analyst Bill Bishop.
While China suffers with a slowing post-Covid economy and skyrocketing youth unemployment, there is also conjecture that Mr. Xi is acting in response to pressure from within the party to clean up the stables. Mr. Xi is not only the president of China, but also the senior military commander, according to the political structure of that country.
According to one perspective, the disappearances point to Mr. Xi’s leadership being unstable.
Observers have focused on the fact that Mr. Xi preferred General Li and Mr. Qin, who were not only ministers but also held more important posts as State Councillors. Therefore, it might be assumed that the Chinese president lacked judgment given their unexpected downfalls.
The fact that he had to carry out a political purge so soon after solidifying his position at the party congress last year, where he successfully neutralized possible rival groupings and packed key committees with his friends, is unflattering if one views the disappearances as a political purge
The opposing viewpoint is that Mr. Xi is once again demonstrating his dominance.
The son of a CCP official who was expelled, Mr. Xi is well known for his public crackdowns on corruption, which, according to critics, also serve as political purges aimed at eliminating his rivals.
No previous Chinese leader since Mao Zedong has come close to matching the scope of Mr. Xi’s purges. They have targeted both low-level and top officials since the start of his “tigers and flies” campaign, which was initiated soon after he assumed office in 2013. It is claimed that they have captured thousands of cadres over the years.
He also attacked the military, removing more than 100 top officers by 2017. The number “far exceeded the number of generals killed in wars to create the new China,” according to an article published at the time by the state news agency Xinhua.
The largest question, though, is what message the most recent disappearances are sending and what they will ultimately mean.
According to observers, they would instill dread inside the military and government. Although ensuring compliance may be the goal, this result would also be demoralizing.
It’s possible that Mr. Xi has surrounded himself with yes men after years of methodically eliminating those who have lost his favor and stacking high positions with his supporters. According to Dr. Char, the danger of groupthink is the “real instability” of Mr. Xi’s leadership, which might have a negative impact on China’s foreign and national security policies.
The disappearances have really occurred during a difficult time in the Taiwan Strait, where China has recently sent more warships and armed aircraft.
Ian Chong, a non-resident fellow at the Carnegie China think tank, said any breakdown in communication on foreign policy and defense diplomacy would be “especially concerning” because “accidents could happen and managing escalation could become more challenging”.
Others counter that China has been careful to operate below the brink of war and that its military leadership is strong enough to withstand the turnover of some key figures.
Others still think Mr. Xi’s ability to maintain his position of leadership won’t likely be affected in the long run by the disappearances. Neil Thomas, a specialist in Chinese elite politics with the Asia Society Policy Institute, noted that none of the cadres who have been targeted up to this point are a part of his close circle.
The opacity of the Chinese system is something that most observers can agree on is highlighted by these occurrences. Dr. Chong stated that it “further sharpens doubts about the consistency of policy implementation and the validity of any working-level promises or assurances.”
Finally, the disappearances of these authorities have increased the “resulting unease”.