Li Shangfu has been China's Defense Minister for only six months before he was hit by a corruption scandal that could ruin the successful career of this 65-year-old veteran general. Many rumors have been circulating since he disappeared from the public sphere at the end of August. The weeks went by and there was no trace of the minister in the events and meetings that appeared on his agenda.
After a hectic summer in Chinese politics, in which high military commanders to a Foreign Minister have fallen, it was inevitable that alarms and speculation would be triggered in the absence of Li, especially considering that this was happening in a country nothing transparent when it comes to giving explanations when these mysterious disappearances happen.
In Beijing the silence continues. There are no official statements on this matter. They are not expected either. But Chinese officials no longer hide that there is an ongoing corruption investigation into Li Shangfu for a plot related to the purchase of military equipment. To understand the case, first you have to go back a few years and draw a few strokes of the character.
The son of a high-ranking commander, Li fought under Mao Zedong during the civil war and also in the Korean War, supporting the Northern side. But Li was not a skilled soldier, but one of the best aerospace engineers of his generation. What he was good at was sending rockets into space. He worked at the Xichang Satellite Launch Center in western China, an institution operated by the People's Liberation Army (PLA). There he directed the launch of China's first lunar probe and also the first test of anti-satellite missiles.
Nine years ago, rewarded for his achievements, he was promoted to general and chief of staff of the PLA Strategic Support Force, an organization that was responsible for retiring old army commanders and moving the right pieces so that the fighting force largest in the world, rusty in many of its departments, began to modernize, starting with the acquisition of modern military equipment. The latter was his main task and for this he was sanctioned by the United States: he oversaw the purchase of Russian Su-35 fighter jets and S-400 air defense missile systems.
Specifically, regarding Li's time at the head of the agency that acquired military equipment, Chinese authorities announced in July that they had launched an investigation into "alleged violations" dating back to October 2017. The published notice cites the "active leak of secrets." " and irregularities in the "bidding process for personal benefit." We will have to wait to learn more details about the open investigation. On Friday, the Financial Times newspaper cited Washington security sources as saying that Li was "under house arrest" as a result of the corruption investigation.
During the last National People's Congress (NPC), the annual session of the Chinese Parliament, President Xi Jinping launched a major reshuffle in key government positions, in which Li Shangfu was named Minister of Defense. A position with a lot of public presence, but with more diplomatic than command power - it is a practically ceremonial position - in the powerful Central Military Commission, which really directs military affairs. This body is made up of seven people, among whom is Li. But all of them are under the supervision of President Xi, who heads this commission as the highest military decision-making authority.
Li's case is reminiscent of the recent disappearance of former Foreign Minister Qin Gang. At the end of July, just a month after he disappeared from the public spotlight, unleashing all kinds of rumors, Beijing finally confirmed the strange dismissal of Qin, one of the politicians closest to President Xi. In the capital of the Asian giant, no explanation has yet been given about the reasons behind this dismissal just eight months after he was appointed minister.
No one has heard anything about Qin's whereabouts since. Neither has Li since he was last seen on August 29, when he gave a keynote speech at the China-Africa Peace and Security Forum in Beijing. A few weeks earlier, the minister visited Belarus and Russia. In Moscow he met with his counterpart, Sergei Shoigu. While it was strengthening military ties with its strategic ally, a new anti-corruption campaign had just been launched in Beijing that took out senior officials of the department that is in charge of supervising the country's ballistic missiles and nuclear arsenal, specifically two general. Among them was Li Yuchao, who last year was promoted to a member of the Central Committee, the highest leadership body of the ruling Communist Party (CPC).
Harking back to old military-related corruption cleanups, in 2012, when Xi Jinping took power, the two vice-chairmen of the Central Military Commission were removed. But the biggest fish to fall was the former head of the PLA Joint Chiefs of Staff, Fang Fenghui, sentenced in 2019 to life imprisonment.