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Chinese leader Xi Purges Top Military Brass
Current and former Chinese ministers under investigation, fate of top general and close ally of Xi in question
The recent purge of many senior Chinese military officials including a defense minister, a former defense minister, and a former foreign minister suggests turmoil within Beijing’s defense establishment, with Zhang Youxia, a trusted ally of Chinese President Xi Jinping, who is even more senior than a defense minister, believed to be next for the chopping block. Foreign and defense ministers Qin Gang and Wei Fenghe respectively have already been removed. More recently, Li Shangfu, the current defense minister, has been placed under investigation after being appointed only in March. In addition, several senior officers of China’s rocket force, which oversees its strategic nuclear missiles, have been purged and one has died.
Willy Lam, a senior fellow of the US-based Jamestown Foundation think tank, and another source who declined to be named told Asia Sentinel that Li is under investigation by authorities. “Li is a goner,” said Lam. “Li was detained around September 1. The big question now is whether General Zhang Youxia may be in big trouble.”
A former Chinese lieutenant colonel, Yao Cheng, tweeted on September 11, “Li Shangfu must be under arrest, Li was promoted by Zhang Youxia, the probability of Zhang as the next to be removed is very big.”
In an interview with NTD, a US-based Chinese news organization, on September 19, Yao qualified that Xi may possibly allow Zhang to retire because Xi may not want to offend powerful princelings who back Zhang. These princelings, who are relatives of former Chinese leaders, are linked to Poly Group, a state-owned conglomerate associated with the late Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping, Yao explained.
In China’s military pecking order, Li is the third most powerful military leader, Zhang is the second most powerful and Xi is the most powerful, adhering to the dictum of late Chinese leader Mao Zedong that “power comes out of the barrel of a gun.” Xi is chairman of the Central Military Commission, China’s top defense organization. Below Xi are the two vice chairmen, Zhang and General He Weidong, according to the Chinese defense ministry’s website. Below the vice chairmen are four members of the commission including Li Shangfu.
The last activities of Li and Zhang recorded on the defense ministry’s website were both on August 29. In contrast, He Weidong’s latest activity mentioned on the ministry’s website was September 15, when he chaired a meeting and exhorted the PLA to be loyal to Xi. Zhang and Li were absent.
Zhang is one of Xi’s childhood friends, according to Cercius Group, a Canadian geopolitical consulting firm. “Suddenly removing Li, who has been actively promoted by Zhang, reflects poorly on Zhang and some elements within the Chinese leadership could use this to drive a wedge between Zhang and Xi.”
Zhang Youxia’s father, Zhang Zongxun, and Xi Jinping’s father, Xi Zhongxun, were born in the same Chinese province of Shaanxi and fought together during the Chinese civil war. Zhang headed the equipment development department of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) in 2016 and 2017, when Li took over the post from Zhang. Li, who spent most of his career in the PLA’s general armaments department, was promoted by Zhang, Xi’s main PLA ally, after the 18th Party Congress in 2012, Cercius Group said, adding that Zhang’s support got Li elected to the Central Military Commission during the 20th Party Congress in 2022.
“When looking back at Li’s career in the armaments department and equipment development department, the hypothesis of him having been swallowed by the anti-corruption whirlpool currently rectifying China’s rocket force does make sense,” Cercius Group explained. “To this effect, him being taken away would be a logical next step following the disappearance of senior rocket force officers lieutenant general Li Yuchao (a former commander), Ju Gansheng, Shang Hong, Liu Guangbin (a former deputy commander), lieutenant general Zhang Zhenzhong (a former deputy commander of the rocket force), former defense minister Wei Fenghe and Zhang Fusheng as well as the death or suicide of Wu Guohua (a former deputy commander).”
The investigation of Li is “a big deal” because Xi handpicked Li as defense minister six months ago, tweeted Lyle Morris, a senior fellow of the Asia Society Policy Institute, on September 16. “As such, Xi put a degree of political stock in Li. There has to be a level of embarrassment for Xi so soon after appointing him.”
This “suggests Xi’s anti-corruption campaign in the PLA is nowhere near done,” Morris added.
Rahm Emmanuel, the US ambassador to Japan, tweeted on September 15, “As Shakespeare wrote in Hamlet, ‘Something is rotten in the state of Denmark.’ 1st: Defense Minister Li Shangfu hasn’t been seen or heard from in 3 weeks. 2nd: He was a no-show for his trip to Vietnam. Now: he’s absent from his scheduled meeting with the Singaporean Chief of Navy because he was placed on house arrest???”
“Li missing key meetings has led to wild speculations online. So much so that Li has been dubbed ‘Qin Gang 2.0,’” Cercius Group commented. “If Li goes silent for too long, this would mean two former ministers, approved by Xi himself, have gone missing with no explanation. This would be an unprecedented situation for the Chinese government. Furthermore, both Qin Gang and Li Shangfu controlled key communication channels with the outside world, thus severely handicapping the Chinese government in international relations.”
At a Chinese defense ministry press conference on August 31, the ministry’s spokesman Wu Qian confirmed that former defense minister Wei Fenghe was under investigation for corruption. As Reuters reported, when asked about Wei’s whereabouts, the spokesman replied, “We will investigate every case and crack down on every corrupt official. The Chinese military governs according to the law, and shows zero tolerance of corruption.”
Wei has not been seen since he was replaced by Li as defense minister in March. Wei was the head of the rocket force from 2015 to 2017.
Wang Yi replaced Qin as foreign minister in late July, Asia Sentinel reported on July 31. Qin has not been seen since June 25. Around June 26, lieutenant general Li Yuchao, then the commander of China’s rocket force, was taken away for investigation, Asia Sentinel reported. The disappearance of Qin and Li around the same time stirred speculation that their cases might possibly be connected, Asia Sentinel added.
There have been or will be secret trials and possibly private executions of the suspects, but no public trials, because that will be too embarrassing for Xi, a foreigner who declined to be named told Asia Sentinel. “He trusted the wrong proteges.”
Qin disappeared in June after an alleged affair with Fu Xiaotian, a female reporter with Phoenix TV, a Chinese state-controlled broadcaster, Asia Sentinel reported on July 18. Fu is currently in detention in China, the foreigner said.
Gordon Chang, an American who is a vocal critic of Beijing, tweeted on September 3, “There are rumors circulating on Chinese social media that Qin Gang, the former foreign minister, has been executed. Whether the reports are true or not – I tend to think they are not – there appears to severe infighting at the top of the CCP (Chinese Communist Party). China does not look stable.”