Hong Kong-based Reporter’s Disappearance May be Linked to PLA Turmoil
Investigations of former Chinese defense minister and generals ongoing
The sudden, prolonged disappearance of Minnie Chan, a South China Morning Post defense reporter who has written knowledgeably of changes at the top of the People’s Liberation Army command structure, comes at a time of uncertainty within the PLA and Chinese government, and has raised alarms over Beijing’s increasingly heavy-handed attitude about press freedom in Hong Kong, which previously enjoyed some of Asia’s widest press freedoms.
Chan, who lives in Hong Kong, has been uncontactable since she was on assignment to the Xiangshan forum on the outskirts of Beijing from October 29 to 31. Her last article was published in the SCMP on November 2 and her last LinkedIn post was about a month ago. Asia Sentinel’s efforts to contact Chan by email and social media received no response.
International press watchdogs the Paris-based Reporters Without Borders and the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists have both voiced concern over Chan’s disappearance, calling for Chinese authorities to “immediately disclose her location and guarantee her safety.” The Hong Kong Journalists Association also said it was “deeply concerned” for Chan’s safety and that it was requesting more information.
Al-Jazeera reported Chan is the second SCMP reporter to drop out of contact in China recently, with another unnamed journalist disappearing for several months in 2022, raising concerns among colleagues that he or she might have been detained, four people familiar with the matter told Al Jazeera. The reporter, the Doha-based television network reported, later returned to work at the newspaper, but in a different section covering less politically sensitive news but hasn’t written for a number of months and it is unclear if he or she is still employed at the newspaper.
Chan’s attendance at the Xiangshan forum, an international military conference attended by foreign defense ministers, occurred just days after Chinese President Xi Jinping personally dismissed defense minister Li Shangfu on October 24, Asia Sentinel reported on October 26.
Normally, Chan takes a pro-China line in her reporting, but she knows a lot about the PLA, which is reflected in her stories in Hong Kong’s leading English-language newspaper, said a source who declined to be named.
“The Chinese government does not like that, so this is a possible reason she might possibly be detained or questioned in mainland China. This is a sensitive time for Xi Jinping,” the source added. Asia Sentinel understands Chan has relatives in the PLA, which is part of the reason the award-winning journalist has broken exclusive scoops on Chinese military matters. She is originally from Shishi City in the southern Chinese province of Fujian.
More than a month after Li Shangfu was sacked as Chinese defense minister, there is still no new defense minister, the source pointed out. “This is strange. This shows the PLA is in a mess.” To date, the government has not publicly announced reasons for Li’s dismissal and has not made public announcements on the outcome of investigations of Li and various Chinese generals, which indicates the investigations are ongoing, the source noted.
According to a report by Taiwan’s Mainland Affairs Council (MAC), Xi embarked on a new round of military purges during the third quarter, leading to the arrest of several high-ranking generals under the Equipment Development Department of the Central Military Commission (CMC) and the PLA’s Rocket Force. Senior officers in the rocket and logistics departments of the PLA are under investigation because the huge amount of money involved in transactions in these departments makes it easier for officers to make money under the table, compared to other sections of the PLA, the source explained.
Chan, who disappeared days after Li was dismissed as defense minister, explained the investigation of Li and several PLA generals.
“Beijing has remained silent over why General Li Shangu – now China’s shortest-serving defense minister – was sacked, but signs leading up to his dismissal suggested that he may have been implicated in corruption,” said an October 27article by Chan and another SCMP reporter, Jack Lau.
“On July 26, the equipment development department of the top-level Central Military Commission (CMC) published a notice asking the public to report any abuse of power, leaking of secrets, or other irregularities in how equipment tenders had been assessed since October 2017. The notice did not mention Li, but he had begun to serve as head of the department only a month before,” said the article.
“Before Li’s downfall, at least three senior officers with the People’s Liberation Army Rocket Force were under investigation, two sources told the Post in July. In the same month, Beijing parachuted two generals into the top two positions in charge of the rocket force, the service branch that oversees the country’s nuclear arsenal. Li’s abrupt departure was the second unexplained top leadership shake-up in three months,” wrote Chan and Lau.
On October 24, Xi personally stripped Qin Gang of the senior post of state councilor. In July, Qin was dismissed as Chinese foreign minister.
“Unlike Qin, Li was stripped of all his government titles at once: minister, state councilor, and CMC member. Having all of his government positions removed at the same time indicated that Li’s situation was much more severe than Qin’s, said Liang Guoliang, a Hong Kong-based military observer,” the two wrote.
The newspaper is well known internationally, so the unusually long absence of its reporter will be noticed around the world, the source said. In a statement to other media, SCMP said, “Her family has informed us that she is in Beijing but needs time to handle a private matter. Her family has told us she is safe but has requested that we respect her privacy. We are in contact with Minnie’s family, and we have no further information to disclose.”
“Xi won’t even call the third plenum of the Central Committee,” said a source. Normally, the Chinese government holds the third plenum in October or November, but this meeting has been postponed with no new date announced. The Central Committee, one of the highest organs of the Chinese government, attends the conclave to set the nation’s economic agenda.
China is currently beset by economic challenges including high youth unemployment, heavy local government debt, a debt-ridden property market, and slow economic growth. On December 5, Moody's, an international rating agency, cut its outlook on China's government credit ratings to negative from stable.
Even if the delay of the third plenum is merely a tactical one, “it is an ominous sign for the overall trajectory of Chinese politics,” said Carl Minzner, a professor at Fordham Law School, in an article in the Council of Foreign Relations on November 27. “If even their scheduling is steadily coming undone under Xi’s pivot back towards one-man rule, China’s politics could be poised to become far less predictable.”
SCMP’s brushes with Chinese authorities
SCMP reporters have run afoul of the Chinese authorities in the past. Another example is Didi Kirsten Tatlow, who is now a reporter with Newsweek in Berlin. In an article in SCMP on April 17, 2005, Tatlow, who was then a reporter with the paper, described her experience of being detained in Dongyang City, Zhejiang province, China. As she related, she was detained for six hours on April 11, 2005, after returning from reporting on a riot in a nearby village.
“At Dongyang's best hotel, the Splendid Plaza, a cohort of officials was waiting for me and my three companions, two other foreign journalists I had asked along – knowing there was safety in numbers – and a Chinese assistant,” Tatlow wrote.
“Please have dinner with us,” they said, smiling and smiling. “We would prefer to continue our journey to Hangzhou,” we said. “That won't be possible,” said Zhang Fahao, a local foreign affairs director,” Tatlow wrote. “We were shown into a large, red-carpeted room…. The first of a score of excellent dishes arrived. This was a banquet. ‘We did that for you because you are foreigners,’ explained Mr Zhang, smiling.”
“Dinner dragged on, and at about 8pm – we were picked up at 6pm – Mr Zhang's assistant put the knife in. With a smile. ‘We must destroy your reporting notes, and you must give us your pictures. Also, we will interview you separately and you must sign a confession that you have broken the law’,” Tatlow wrote. Tatlow and her companions returned to Hangzhou, the capital of Zhejiang province, the following day.
“Our detention had been a golden cage - but a cage nonetheless,” Tatlow declared in her article.