China’s Foreign Ministry on Friday dodged questions about the whereabouts of the country’s defense minister, amid growing speculation that the recently promoted general has been placed under investigation.
Li Shangfu, who was named 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 changes roiled the ruling Communist Party’s senior ranks. from China this summer.
The Financial Times reported late Thursday that the US government believes Li has been placed under investigation, citing US officials. The Wall Street Journal also reported that authorities took Li in for questioning last week, citing a person close to decision-making in Beijing. Neither report cites a reason for the investigation.
Asked about Li’s situation at a regular news briefing on Friday, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Mao Ning said: “I am not aware of the situation.”
Questions about Li’s whereabouts arise following the unexplained disappearance of Qin Gang, who was dramatically ousted as China’s foreign minister in late July after disappearing from public view for a month.
Qin, who was only foreign minister for seven months, has retained the position of state councilor, a senior position in China’s cabinet that Li also holds.
On Chinese government and military websites, Li is still listed as defense minister, state councilor and member of the party’s powerful Central Military Commission (CMC).
Li’s disappearance also comes weeks after a surprise reorganization in the Chinese military. In July, the People’s Liberation Army abruptly replaced two leaders of its Rocket Force, an elite military branch that oversees the country’s nuclear and ballistic missile arsenal. The dismissed commander had not been seen in public for months.
CNN is attempting to contact US officials for comment.
Li’s absence was also noted in diplomatic circles. Last week, the US ambassador to Japan, Rahm Emanuel, wrote on X, the platform formerly known as Twitter, that Li had not been seen in public for two weeks.
In his post, Emanuel said: “The composition of President Xi’s cabinet now resembles Agatha Christie’s novel And Then There Were None. First, Foreign Minister Qin Gang disappears, then the Rocket Force commanders disappear, and now Defense Minister Li Shangfu has not 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 while concentrating power and imposing strict party discipline.
“Both the Minister of Foreign Affairs and the Minister of Defense are external interlocutors with the international community. They have potentially been removed without any explanation or any consideration for global perception,” Drew Thompson, a senior fellow at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy at the National University of Singapore, told CNN on Friday.
“This fuels the crisis of confidence in China. “It underlines the lack of transparency and completely opaque nature of decision-making in China.”
Before being promoted to defense minister, Li was head of the CMC Equipment Development Department in charge of weapons procurement for five years starting in 2017. In that role, Li was sanctioned by the United States in 2018 for the purchase of Russian weapons by China.
In late July, the Department of Equipment Development issued a notice requesting public alerts about corrupt procurement practices dating back to 2017, which coincides with the time when Li was in charge of procurement.
Li was last seen in public on August 29, when he gave a keynote speech at the China-Africa Peace and Security Forum in Beijing.
He last traveled outside of China in mid-August on a trip to Russia and Belarus. In Moscow, Li met with his Russian counterpart, Sergey Shoigu, and praised China-Russia military relations as “a model of cooperation.” In Minsk he met with Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko.
Two weeks away from the public eye is not unprecedented for China’s defense minister, who typically has public engagements less frequently than the foreign minister.
However, it has fueled speculation, especially following Qin’s disappearance and dismissal.
Last week, Li abruptly withdrew from an annual meeting with Vietnamese defense leaders along the two countries’ border, Reuters reported, citing Vietnamese officials. The meeting was postponed after Beijing told Hanoi days before the event that Li was in a “healthy condition,” Reuters said, citing two officials.
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 Sept. 7-8. There has been no official statement or media report from either party as to whether the meeting took place.