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Chinese Defense Minister Li Shangfu joins the long list of sudden high-profile ‘disappear ances’ in the Chinese narrative. It was preceded by the same ‘disappearance’ storyline of China’s Foreign Minister, Qin Gang, and then of the equally mysterious removal of the top Military Commander of the People’s Liberation Army Rocket Force (PLARF), Li Yuchao. Each of these men was reportedly chosen by President Xi Jinping for their sensitive posts, and each one of them also faced the wrath of Xi’s ‘cleanliness drive’ a euphemism for anti-corruption, more often than not.
Like always, the ‘disappearance’ gets picked by China- watchers and is never officially announced. This time too, Li Shangfu was not seen, heard, or quoted since 29 August and was missing during important trips and meetings. A de riguer ‘health concern’ was attributed initially, and the ironclad veil of secrecy disallowed any questioning. The charade continued with the Chinese spokesperson feigning ignorance and saying that she was ‘not aware of the situation’!
If indeed Li Shangfu is convicted of misdemeanors (it will never be officially stated), he would join the infamous list of earlier Chinese Defense Ministers who did get purged, that is Peng Dehuai in 1959, and Lin Biao in 1971. But coming as it does on the heels of the similar- ly purged Commanders of the strategic nuclear arsenal, something is terribly amiss, even by Chinese standards. Besides the removal of Li Yuchao as the Commander of PLARF, the Deputy Commander, Wu Guohua, is believed to have taken his life at his home. Eerily there was no public memorial service for him, as is the norm.
When conflated with Xi’s repeated and seemingly paranoid call to tight en the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP’s) hold over the Chinese military, the optics of insecurity and possible disarray in the ranks are clear Beijing claims to have swept up to 2 million ‘tigers and flies’ (suggesting the various levels of officialdom) in its anti-corruption drive, but that is clearly not enough.
Given that many of these crucial appointments were at the behest of Xi Jinping himself, they reflect rather shoddily on his ability to judge character. This perhaps explains
the discomfort in making a public case out of individual dereliction, as the taint sticks
on Xi, too. Interestingly, while there are odd murmurs of some accused having compromised on official secrets, the bulk of the crimes are of a pecuniary nature.
Even in the recent Li Shangfu incident, the internal corruption watchdog agency, Central Commission for Discipline Inspection (CCDI), is said to be on his heels. Apparently, Li Shangfu’s earlier tenure as the Director (from 2017 to 2022) of China’s cash-flush arms pro- curement agency, Equipment Development Department (EDD), could have caught up with the man who only spent a few months as the Chinese Defense Minister.
Lack of political opposition, free press, or any form of public inquiry or activism disables the natural course of accountability, responsibility, and probity. It is only when the word of any indi- vidual’s culpability reaches the ears of Xi or of members of his coterie does the backtrail start. However, like all authoritarian regimes the dispensing of ‘justice’ is fairly instantaneous with a kangaroo-court ordained ‘disappearance’, which then morphs into a permanent ‘dis- appearance’. The very rare ones who did ‘disappear’ and managed to return like the one-time billionaire Jack Ma, are only afforded the luxury of odd ‘spotting’, though never to return to their for- mer glory ever again.
Xi Jinping is known to have an acute sense of his- tory and all the imagined ghosts that it unleashes. He has a retinue of officials who track the actions of other leaders for in- valuable ‘lessons’ for him to imbibe, and herein, the examples from Russia of graft and Putin-supported lackeys like Yevgeny Prigozhin (who dangerously outgrew his patron and started threatening Putin’s legitimacy), would not have missed Xi’s eyes and thoughts.
No one in China is too important or senior to dare cross the line with Xi and expect to get away, not even the former Chinese President, Hu Jintao. Last year saw the dramatic physical eviction of Hu Jintao from the 20th Congress meet the optics were suggestive of Xi’s message to the assem- blage, to always toe the line or be ready to face the conse- quences.
The age-old ‘health issues’ of the former President were unconvincingly posited, though the inherent message of public humiliation was not lost on anyone. He, too, hasn’t been seen in public since. More importantly, the Hu Jintao incident did allude to lingering perceptions of dissent and ‘challenge’ to Xi’s authority that he constantly imagines and takes on.
So much so, that the US Ambassador to Japan, Rahm Emanuel made a sarcastic remark about the ‘unemployment rate’ in the Chinese govern- ment, given its proclivity to purge, especially in recent times.
Xi has been goading the Chinese to, “focus on solving the prominent problems that per- sist at party organizations on all levels with regard to enforcing the party’s absolute leadership over the military”. Whether it is concerns of continuing graft, leak of official secrets, or plain issues of personal disloyalty, Xi Jinping is not satisfied with the way the gov- ernment is functioning, hence the purge overdrive.
Carefully choreographed chants of loyalty to Xi not with-standing, there are multiple and conflicting opinions on handling the Chinese narrative and governance that willy-nilly chal- lenge Xi’s preference for unilateralism. With possible disagreements on use of force in Taiwan, or in the restive South China Seas, to the personal detriment of Xi’s unbridled authority, removal of such contrarian ‘voices’ comes naturally to an authoritarian.
Importantly, both Li Shangu as the Defense Minister (making him the Military Diplomat as opposed to giving him any operational control over PLA) and Qin Gang, the ousted Foreign Minister, were both outward looking policy mandarins and not really involved in the relatively well-controlled, internal affairs of China.
Corruption or no corruption, Xi Jinping is far from being fully in control with the way things are shaping up, as suggested by the revolving door leading to the phenomenon of ‘disappearances’ in China.
(The writer is Lt Gen PVSM, AVSM (Retd), and former Lt Governor of Andaman & Nicobar Islands and Puducherry)