China’s Foreign Ministry on Friday skirted questions on the whereabouts of the country’s defense minister, amid mounting speculation the recently promoted general has been placed under investigation.
Li Shangfu, who was appointed defense minister in March, has been absent from public view for more than two weeks, fueling rumors about his fate after a series of unexplained personnel shakeups roiled the upper ranks of China’s ruling Communist Party this summer.
The Financial Times reported late Thursday that the US government believes Li has been placed under investigation, citing American officials. The Wall Street Journal also reported Li was taken away last week by authorities for questioning, citing a person close to decision making in Beijing. Neither of the reports cite a reason for the investigation.
Asked about Li’s situation at a regular news briefing Friday, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Mao Ning said “I’m not aware of the situation.”
Qin, who was only foreign minister for seven months, has retained the position of state councillor – a senior role in China’s cabinet which Li also holds.
On Chinese government and military websites, Li is still listed as the defense minister, state councillor and a member of the party’s powerful Central Military Commission (CMC).
Li’s disappearance also comes weeks after a surprise shake-up in the Chinese military. In July, the People’s Liberation Army abruptly replaced two leaders of its Rocket Force – an elite military branch overseeing the nation’s arsenal of nuclear and ballistic missiles. The commander who was removed had not been seen in public for months.
CNN is attempting to reach US officials for comment.
Li’s absence was also noted in the diplomatic circles. Last week, US ambassador to Japan Rahm Emanuel wrote on X, the platform formerly known as Twitter, that Li hadn’t been seen in public for two weeks.
In his post, Emanuel said: “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.” He wrote with the hashtag “MysteryInBeijingBuilding.”
The disappearance of two high-profile ministers in quick succession has raised questions about the governance of leader Xi Jinping, who has made China’s political system even more opaque as he concentrates power and enforces strict party discipline.
“The foreign minister and the defense minister are both externally facing interlocutors with the international community. They have been potentially removed without any explanation or any consideration for global perception,” Drew Thompson, a senior research fellow at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy at the National University of Singapore, told CNN Friday.
“This fuels the crisis of confidence in China. It underscores the lack of transparency and the complete opaque nature of decision making in China.”
Before being promoted to defense minister, Li was head of the CMC’s Equipment Development Department in charge of weapon procurement for five years from 2017. In that role, Li was sanctioned by the United States in 2018 over China’s purchase of Russian weapons.
In late July, the Equipment Development Department issued a notice calling for public tip-offs on corrupt procurement practices dating back to 2017, which coincides with the time Li was in charge of procurement.
Li was last seen in public on August 29, when he delivered a keynote speech at the China-Africa Peace and Security Forum in Beijing.
He last traveled outside China in mid-August on a trip to Russia and Belarus. In Moscow, Li met with his Russian counterpart Sergey Shoigu and hailed the military relations between China and Russia “a model of cooperation.” In Minsk, he met with Belarusian president Alexander Lukashenko.
Two weeks away from the public view is not unprecedented for China’s defense minister, who typically has less frequent public engagements than the foreign minister.
But it has nevertheless fueled speculation, especially coming so soon on the heels of Qin’s disappearance and dismissal.
Last week, Li abruptly pulled out of an annual meeting with Vietnamese defense leaders along the two countries’ border, Reuters reported, citing Vietnamese officials. The gathering was postponed after Beijing told Hanoi days before the event that Li had a “health condition,” Reuters cited two officials as saying.
Vietnam’s defense ministry said at a press conference last month that Li would lead a Chinese delegation to attend the 8th Border Defense Friendship Exchange on September 7-8. There has been no official statement or media report from either side on whether the meeting took place.