(CTN News) – According to 10 persons with knowledge of the situation, China’s Defence Minister Li Shangfu, who has been missing for almost two weeks, is currently the subject of an inquiry.
A regional security officer and three people with direct ties to the Chinese military have stated that the probe into Li is related to the purchase of military hardware. The specific equipment purchases being investigated were not disclosed to Reuters.
Two persons with close ties to the Chinese military have said that eight high-ranking members of the procurement section, which Li oversaw from 2017 to 2022, are also being questioned.
According to the two sources, the military’s strong disciplinary inspection panel is investigating Li, who was appointed as defense minister in March, and the eight officials.
Based on conversations with sources who communicate regularly with senior Chinese political and defence leaders and regional officials with a close understanding of Chinese politics, Reuters conducted a detailed assessment of the charges against Li and the timing of the probe.
On Friday, a spokeswoman for China’s Foreign Ministry told reporters that she was unaware of the issue. Both the State Council and the Ministry of Defence did not respond right away to calls for comment. There was a delay in getting in touch with Li.
On Friday, the Financial Times quoted unnamed U.S. officials as saying that the United States government is investigating Li Shangfu. A source close to Beijing’s decision-makers told the Wall Street Journal that he was detained for interrogation last week.
U.S. intelligence officers reportedly suspected Li Shangfu was under investigation for corruption, but the State Department did not immediately reply to a request for comment on these accusations.
U.S. Ambassador to Japan Rahm Emanuel questioned on Friday if Li Shangfu was under house arrest via X (formerly Twitter).
No additional statement was available right away from the U.S. Embassy in Tokyo. On August 29, Li Shangfu gave a keynote address at a security meeting in Beijing attended by African countries. In the beginning of that same month, he also went to Russia and Belarus.
A person in direct contact with the military and two foreign security officials briefed on the situation said the investigation into the minister began soon after his return from that trip.
A Vietnamese official said on September 3 that Li’s planned visit to Vietnam for the countries’ annual defence summit on September 7-8 had been cancelled by his ministry. According to two Vietnamese officials, Beijing gave the excuse of Li’s “health condition” when it postponed the event.
Diplomats and social media users in the region began to wonder where Li was when he missed the meeting and had conversations with a senior Singaporean military officer in China the same week.
The investigation into Li follows a leadership shakeup in the People’s Liberation Army’s elite Rocket Force, which is responsible for conventional and nuclear missiles, and the July replacement of Foreign Minister Qin Gang, who had been out of the public eye for some time. At first, Chinese authorities blamed Qin’s absence on health concerns.
While the Chinese economy is still recovering from strict economic closures and relations with the United States have further deteriorated over various problems, the sudden changes in China’s leadership have prompted questions among some analysts and diplomats.
Observers of Chinese politics saw both Li and Qin as personally selected by President Xi Jinping, making their departure after less than a year in the position all the more surprising. Both men were highly visible in the public eye and are now among China’s five state councillors, a position that is higher than that of a minister.
The military’s procurement office took the unprecedented step of publicly announcing its intention to “clean-up” the bidding process in July. The company issued a call for public reports of wrongdoing dating back to October 2017, while Li was still in charge. He commanded the force until October of 2022.
A Defence Ministry spokesman said the military has “zero-tolerance for corruption” last month when asked about the whereabouts of two former senior military leaders who had not been seen in public recently and if they were under investigation, without denying the possibility that they were.
“We must always blow the horn, investigate every case, punish every instance of corruption, and resolutely win the hard and protracted battle against corruption,” the spokesman said.
Li was promoted to deputy commander of the Strategic Support Force in 2016, an elite organization with the mission of speeding up the military’s progress in space and cyber warfare. After that, the following year he was put in charge of military supplies.
In 2018, the United States imposed sanctions on Li for his acquisitions of weapons from Rosoboronexport, Russia’s largest arms exporter.
In order to improve communication between the Chinese and American forces, Beijing has repeatedly demanded that these sanctions be lifted. A Pentagon spokeswoman said that U.S. Defence Secretary Lloyd Austin attempted to meet with Li at a defense conference in Singapore in June, but that they were only able to exchange polite greetings.