China removes defence minister two months after disappearance

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China has officially removed Li Shangfu as defence minister and cabinet member, almost two months after he disappeared amid a sweeping purge of senior military leaders.

The standing committee of the National People’s Congress, the country’s rubber stamp parliament, on Tuesday also stripped former foreign minister Qin Gang of his rank as state councillor, or cabinet member, three months after his dismissal following a similar absence from public view.

The fall in just a few months of two cabinet members key to China’s interaction with international counterparts on foreign and security issues has underscored the increasing opacity of Chinese politics under President Xi Jinping.

The announcement of the moves by state broadcaster CCTV came just before an international security conference in Beijing on Sunday at which China hopes to resume some military dialogue with the US at a time of rising tensions between the two global powers.

At the Xiangshan Forum, which will be held in person for the first time since 2019, the defence minister would have traditionally held such talks. China did not immediately name a replacement for Li as defence minister, but observers expect that whichever general leads the dialogue will be his successor.

Although Li’s fall is believed by some analysts to have been triggered by a corruption probe, the change also removes an obstacle to military-to-military contacts with Washington. Li is subject to US sanctions, and China had demanded these be lifted as a precondition for ministerial-level defence talks.

In China, the defence minister’s main responsibility is military diplomacy, and he does not command strong authority inside the armed forces.

US officials told the Financial Times last month that the Biden administration believed Li was under investigation.

He disappeared at the end of August, six weeks after China’s Central Military Commission, the top military organ chaired by Xi, announced a corruption probe into its equipment development department. The department is responsible for developing and acquiring new weapons and was led by Li for five years until his elevation into the CMC a year ago.

The top leadership of the People’s Liberation Army Rocket Force, the arm of the Chinese military responsible for long-range missiles including nuclear weapons, was also ousted this summer, a major move that Beijing has not explained.

While some of the replaced generals had previously served with Li at the equipment development department, some people familiar with the situation said they were suspected of having leaked secrets.

Former foreign minister Qin mysteriously disappeared in June and was officially replaced as minister a month later. Beijing officials have declined to explain the dismissal of Qin, who had until Tuesday retained his status as a state councillor.

The NPC standing committee on Tuesday also replaced Wang Zhigang as minister of science and technology with Yin Hejun, the ministry’s Communist party secretary. It removed Liu Kun as minister of finance, whose departure had been signalled last month as part of Beijing’s reshuffle of its economic team.

Separately, the NPC standing committee on Tuesday approved the issuance of extra sovereign debt this year as part of an adjustment to the annual budget. The rare move came as Beijing steps up efforts to spur infrastructure spending and revive ailing market confidence.

The state-run Xinhua news agency cited finance ministry officials as saying the government would issue Rmb1tn ($137bn) in additional sovereign bonds in the fourth quarter of 2023, with the funds to be used to support infrastructure development in regions that had suffered from natural disasters.

The move, which had not been part of the standing committee agenda released earlier this month, would widen China’s 2023 budget deficit from 3 per cent to about 3.8 per cent, Xinhua said.

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