Three weeks have passed since Gen. Li Shangfu was last seen in public, and there is no official confirmation about what has happened to the Chinese defense minister. His unexplained absence highlights the opaque and complex nature of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) and its relationship with the Chinese Communist Party.
Li is a technocrat and a veteran of China’s military modernization drive. He rose through the ranks to become defense minister earlier this year. Last Friday, Li was reported to be the subject of a corruption probe. Li, who is under investigation over procurement of military equipment during his previous role in the PLA, was last seen in Beijing on Aug. 29 delivering a keynote address at a security forum with African nations.
The Chinese minister of national defense is generally not considered to be as powerful as the U.S. secretary of defense or other international equivalents. The position is largely seen as a diplomatic and ceremonial role without any direct command function.
Gang of Six?
However, Li is among the six military officials under President Xi Jinping on the core Central Military Commission. He is also one of five state councilors, a position that outranks other Cabinet ministers. Li, who was an aerospace engineer and worked extensively on China’s satellite program, played a critical role in helping implement Xi’s modernization of the PLA.
Li is still listed as the defense minister, state councilor, and member of the Central Military Commission, Reuters reported. The news outlet also noted that Li had been sanctioned by the U.S. in 2018 over the purchase of Russian weapons, and he shunned formal discussions with U.S. Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin in June.
Latest Missing Minister
Li’s disappearance follows that of Foreign Minister Qin Gang, who was dramatically ousted in late July after vanishing from public view for more than a month. However, Qin retained his position of state councilor.
The missing defense minister was also noted by U.S. Ambassador to Japan Rahm Emanuel, who last week wrote on X that Li had not been seen for two weeks.
“President Xi’s cabinet lineup is now resembling Agatha Christie’s novel And Then There Were None. First, Foreign Minister Qin Gang goes missing, then the Rocket Force commanders go missing, and now Defense 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,” the post from @USAmbJapan noted, referencing the Hulu original series, “Only Murders in the Building.”
Li and That “Missing Submarine”
The timing of Li’s last public appearance coincided with rumors that a Chinese Type 093 (Shang-class) nuclear-powered submarine suffered a serious mishap while transiting the Taiwan Strait. There has been no confirmed loss of a submarine, and even Taipei has sought to quash such speculation.
However, Beijing has a history of covering up military accidents, so it isn’t surprising that little has been said of the Type 093 submarine.
This is beginning to sound more like a “Tom Clancy thriller,” rather than an “Agatha Christie mystery,” and the idea that Li might have been on that missing submarine has been bandied about.
But the truth is probably far more mundane.
Li is the subject of a corruption probe in a nation where officials are known to disappear, only to return later with no formal explanation – while others have simply vanished like they never existed.
Author Experience and Expertise: A Senior Editor for 19FortyFive, Peter Suciu is a Michigan-based writer. He has contributed to more than four dozen magazines, newspapers, and websites with over 3,200 published pieces over a twenty-year career in journalism. He regularly writes about military hardware, firearms history, cybersecurity, politics, and international affairs. Peter is also a Contributing Writer for Forbes and Clearance Jobs. You can follow him on Twitter: @PeterSuciu.