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Ministers’ Sacking Shows Cracks in China’s Leadership
Chinese defense minister, ex foreign minister fall from grace amidst Sino-US tensions
Chinese President Xi Jinping’s removal of four ministers and demotion of former foreign minister Qin Gang makes Xi look powerful, but actually is a symptom of weaknesses in his leadership, analysts say.
On October 24, Xi personally gave an order to dismiss Li Shangfu as defense minister and state councilor, sack Qin as state councilor, remove Liu Kun as finance minister, and remove Wang Zhigang as science and technology minister. Yin Hejun replaced Wang as science and technology minister, while Lan Fo’an replaced Liu as finance minister.
The announcement failed to name a replacement for Li Shangfu, Patricia Thornton, an associate professor of Chinese politics at Oxford University, tweeted on October 24. “China now apparently has no minister of defense. Who will host the Xiangshan Forum next week?”
“The fact that Xi could not name anybody to replace Li Shangfu just as the Xiangshan military conference was about to take place means that Xi was not confident of the loyalty and ability of his top military brass,” Willy Lam, a senior fellow of the Jamestown Foundation, a US think tank, told Asia Sentinel.
Liu and Wang have reached the official Chinese retirement age of 65, so their removal as finance minister and science and technology minister respectively appears routine. Nonetheless, Xi’s removal of four ministers and firing Qin as state councilor on the same day gives the impression of upheaval in China’s leadership. In China, a state councilor is a senior minister whose rank is immediately below a deputy prime minister.
“Sacking several ministers the same day suggests that Xi is, for some reason, unhappy with developments inside the PRC (People’s Republic of China) in ways that go beyond specific areas like foreign affairs or the military. However, there is little information or explanation on what the case really is. That underlines the uncertainty and opacity of the PRC and CCP (Chinese Communist Party),” a Singapore academic told Asia Sentinel.
Qin’s removal as state councilor on October 24 comes three months after he was sacked as foreign minister in July.
“Regarding Qin Gang, that Xi had to pick on the services of Wang Yi indicated the supreme leader’s apparent failure to nurture a cadre of capable diplomats,” said Lam.
Wang Yi, who previously served as foreign minister from 2013 to 2022, returned to the job on July 25. In a bid to mend fraught Sino-US ties, Wang Yi is visiting the US from October 26 to 28, where he will be hosted by his counterpart Antony Blinken, the US State Department announced on October 23.
“It is so very odd that Beijing still gives no explanation for the downfall of either Li Shangfu or Qin Gang. It makes China look rather dysfunctional,” tweeted Dennis Wilder, professor of Asian studies at Georgetown University, on October 24.
Xi’s terse announcement on October 24 on the removal of 4 ministers and the demotion of Qin gave no reason for his actions. This contrasts with the normal practice of the Chinese government of publicizing the misdeeds of a former minister after his dismissal. His downfall is suspected to be linked to his alleged affair with a Chinese female television reporter, Fu Xiaotian, as well as the leakage of China’s missile secrets by some Chinese rocket generals, Asia Sentinel reported on July 31.
“Li Shangfu was detained along with a dozen-odd equipment procurement officers and rocket forces officers for alleged corruption and leakage of state secrets to the US,” Lam pointed out.
Favorites lost favor
Li and Qin were reportedly previously Xi’s favored proteges. Yet Qin was sacked only seven months into the job and removed as state councilor after being appointed to that post eight months earlier. Li was fired as defense minister and state councilor only eight months after being promoted to both positions in March.
“When it comes to Li Shangfu and Qin Gang, stripping them of their State Councillor title is basically like Xi admitting defeat,” an analyst of Cercius Group, a Canadian geopolitical consultancy, told Asia Sentinel.
“Since coming to power in 2012, Xi has paid particular attention to grooming a cadre of loyal, capable, and non-corrupt PLA officers. He seems to have failed dismally,” Lam said.
“The sackings suggest that ministers and state councilors serve at Xi’s pleasure. It does not matter if Xi favored them at any one time,” said the Singapore academic who declined to be named. “The sackings suggest that Xi is very confident in his position, and unchallenged even if he is unhappy with the performance or behavior of his subordinates. There appears to be no pushback or disagreement with Xi’s decisions.”
Taking a different view from the Singapore academic, the Cercius Group analyst said, “He may look and act all powerful, but right below him, his own networks are actively undermining one another to get his favor and attention. This creates very awkward situations for Xi to handle as he is currently being forced to favor some of his associates at the expense of others. And favoring one network over another one will lead to resentment, policy distortion, and informal resistance. This role of “arbiter of factional conflict” – a very Mao position to take – does not lead to more loyalty or stability. Quite the opposite.”
“Xi being strong-armed into sacking individuals he promoted and supported supports the idea that there are still forces working to undermine his position and make him lose face. The leaks on both men (true or not) reflect poorly on Xi’s ability to properly select and vet cadres. This situation also reminds him that he is surrounded by two-face cadres who always have secrets or ulterior motives. In this regard, being forced to remove Qin and Li exacerbates the overall tensions and distrust climate within the Party leadership,” the Cercius analyst added.
Before his dismissal, Li was the fourth most powerful military official in China. According to the website of China’s ministry of defense, Xi is the most powerful military leader of China as chairman of the Central Military Commission, followed by two vice chairmen, Zhang Youxia and He Weidong. Below in third place are commission members including the defence minister. Li’s link on the website no longer works, reflecting his dismissal.
Li was promoted by Zhang, who in turn is a childhood friend of Xi, Asia Sentinel reported on September 20. Nonetheless, Zhang may possibly be next to fall from grace, according to the Asia Sentinel article. For now, Zhang appears safe, as he met the Serbian defense minister-cum-deputy prime minister Milos Vucevic on October 17, according to an announcement from China’s ministry of defense.
“We do not believe Zhang Youxia is in the clear. We instead think Xi will try to slowly divest Zhang’s responsibility onto other generals and keep him as a “symbolic general”. After all, Zhang had to be aware of the situation regarding Li Shangfu yet chose not to report it,” said the Cercius analyst. But considering the status of Zhang within the People’s Liberation Army (PLA), Xi cannot simply sack him without expecting whole segments of the PLA command structure to turn its back on Xi, he said.