Questions Outnumber Answers as China Appoints New Defense Minister
A multitude of high-level shifts in China's leadership has raised uncertainty surrounding the stability of the Xi Jinping administration.
The Dec. 29 announcement of Dong Jun’s appointment to the position of Minister of National Defense of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) closed a two-month-long vacancy in the Xi Jinping administration, which has recently seen numerous shifts in personnel and leadership.
Dong is a People’s Liberation Army (PLA) Navy Admiral whose experience includes a two-year stint as deputy commander of the East Sea Fleet, the naval wing of China’s Eastern Theater Command which overseas naval operations in the East China Sea and the Taiwan Strait. Dong later served as deputy commander of the Southern Theater Command with jurisdiction over the South Sea Fleet which operates in the hotly-contested South China Sea. In addition to this experience, Dong also served as the ninth Commander of the PLA Navy from 2021 to 2023 and has been succeeded in this post by Admiral Hu Zhongming, who previously served as PLA Navy Chief of Staff.
Dong is the first defense minister to come from a naval background and takes up the post at a time where military relations between China and both the U.S. and its neighboring nations have been fraught with uncertainty and tension. Dong took office just two days before Xi called unification with Taiwan “inevitable” during his New Year’s Eve address, and just over two months after the high-profile removal of Li Shangfu from the post of defense minister. Li had served in the position for only seven months, making him him the shortest-serving Minister of National Defense in the history of the People’s Republic.
Previously speculated successors to Li included the two Vice Chairmen of the Central Military Commission (CMC), the country’s highest decision-making body for military affairs. Generals Zhang Youxia - who has been described as “the highest Chinese uniformed officer” by the Ministry of National Defense (MND) and He Weidong. Gen. Liu Zhenli’s name also made rounds after he was named in an exclusive report by Reuters in October as Li’s likely successor, citing “five people familiar with the matter.”
Though the post of defense minister is once again filled, 10 weeks of confusion lingers around the question of what exactly happened involving Li Shangfu and another high-level official who was removed from office in a similarly unceremonious manner.
During the same Oct. 24 meeting of the Standing Committee of the 14th National People’s Congress which saw Li removed from all of his posts, former Minister of Foreign Affairs Qin Gang was stripped of his last remaining official title of State Councilor after initially being removed from the post of Foreign Minister three months earlier. As in the case of Li, no reason was given for Qin’s removal, though speculation regarding his whereabouts had been running rampant after he had disappeared from public view two weeks prior to his official removal on July 25. The run-up to Li’s removal from office followed a similar pattern where he disappeared from public life for an extended period before being officially relieved of duty. Li’s last public appearance came at the end of August while attending the 3rd China-Africa Peace and Security Forum in Beijing.
Unlike Li’s, Qin’s removal from office was accompanied by an immediate announcement of his replacement. Wang Yi, who had previously served as Foreign Minister (2013-2022) and has, since Jan. 1, 2023, served as Director of the Office of the Central Foreign Affairs Commission, was announced to once again be taking up the post of foreign minister. Wang is the first person to hold the office on two separate occasions.
Without an official reason being given for Li’s dismissal, theories surrounding the situation are suspect-at-best to those outside of the circles familiar with the matter.
With Xi’s anti-corruption campaign in its 12th year, Li’s removal being related to charges of corruption is an understandable consideration - lingering questions about the true nature of the anti-corruption push aside. The removal of all of Li’s titles coming on Oct. 24, while Qin maintained his State Councilor status for months after being removed from his post as foreign minister in July, may hint that Li’s situation is more severe than Qin’s, whose dismissal is generally seen as being related to his personal conduct during his time as the Chinese Ambassador to the United States.Further speculation citing sources close to Qin suggests that his removal was motivated by pressure from Russia after Qin had been labeled as “pro-U.S.” owing to his oversight of China’s engagement with Ukraine during the ongoing Russo-Ukrainian War. However, other claims emerged in the months following his removal from office that Qin had instead died under unclear circumstances.
Finally, Li was removed from the CMC. As China’s paramount leader, Xi chairs the CMC, from which Li was removed on Oct. 24, when he was stripped of his other titles. Li’s name, at time of writing, remains on the list of members for the Communist Party of China (CPC) Commission, but is absent from the PRC Commission members list.
Few answers were properly revealed as this drama played out.
The fact that both Li and Qin rose to the ministerial level at the 20th National Congress of the CPC in November of 2022 suggested that they had both been heavily vetted according to Xi’s own criteria. That is to say, the consecutive, quiet removals of two high-level officials who had been elevated to their posts at the Party Congress which many saw as Xi’s ultimate consolidation of power was a shock to most observers. For all intents and purposes, both Li and Qin were assumed by many to have passed the Xi test before taking high office.
Citing 10 sources close to the matter, Reuters reported on Sept. 14 that Li had been placed under investigation on suspicion of corruption, at which point he had been absent from public life for two weeks. Specifically, the report suggests that Li is being investigated regarding corrupt practices in military procurement. Li previously led the Equipment Development Department of the Central Military Commission (EDD), putting him in charge of military procurement, from 2017 to 2022. Two sources indicated that eight other officials from the EDD are under investigation as well.
During his time as Ambassador to the United States, Qin was rumored to have been involved in an affair with TV presenter Fu Xiaotian , who was said to have had a child in the U.S. through surrogacy. According to the Financial Times, Qin began limiting contact with Fu after being promoted to the post of foreign minister, which led to Fu dropping hints surrounding their relationship on social media. Fu disappeared from public view around the same time as Qin. Multiple sources have said that this ordeal resulted in an investigation as to whether or not Qin’s conduct had compromised China’s national security. Qin has not been seen in public since June 25.
The same meeting which saw Dong elevated to the post of Minister of National Defense also saw nine military officials removed from their roles in the National People’s Congress (NPC), China’s top legislative body.
Among those removed were Gen. Li Yuchao and Zhang Zhenzhong. Li was one of multiple individuals removed from the PLA Rocket Force – which overseas both nuclear and conventional missiles - in July while being investigated by the CMC’s anti-corruption unit. In July, Zhang, then-deputy to Li, and Liu Gangbin, a former deputy of Li, were also placed under investigation for corrupt practices. Liu Zhen, writing for South China Morning Post also reports that Li Chuanguang who had been deputy commander of the rocket force from 2016, and Zhou Yaning, who proceeded Li as commander, were also removed from their NPC posts. Lu Hong, currently heading rocket force equipment development, was also stripped of his NPC title. Crucially, Liu notes, NPC members are immune from arrest or criminal charges. The removal of multiple officials from the NPC could suggest that further discipline is impending for the individuals involved.
Many observers have called these rapid, successive removals of high-level officials and escalation of Xi’s signature anti-corruption drive, with the military currently finding itself centered in Xi’s sights. Questions of poor oversight, ongoing crackdowns on corruption, and even espionage have circulated in the absence of official word on the fates of Qin, Li, or the others recently removed from their posts for ostensibly disciplinary purposes.
Such recent upheavals within the Chinese political and military leadership highlight a pervasive sense of disarray and unpredictability in the country’s notoriously structured and regimented political system. Considering the opaque nature of the working of Chinese politics, any revelations regarding the true nature of these recent shifts in leadership are likely still beyond the horizon.
The views and information contained in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily represent those of The Asia Cable.
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