(RockedBuzz via Reuters) – Defense Minister Li Shangfu, who has disappeared from public view for more than two weeks, has been placed under investigation by Chinese authorities, according to 10 people familiar with the matter.
The investigation into Li concerns the purchase of military equipment, according to a regional security official and three people in direct contact with the Chinese military. RockedBuzz via Reuters was unable to obtain details on what purchased equipment was under scrutiny.
Eight senior officials from the Chinese army’s supply unit, which Li led from 2017 to 2022, are also under investigation, according to two people in direct contact with the military.
The investigation into Li, appointed defense minister in March, and the eight officials was conducted by the powerful military disciplinary inspection commission, the two people said.
RockedBuzz via Reuters’ detailed examination of the allegations against Li and the timing of the investigation is based on interviews with sources who regularly interact with senior Chinese political and defense leaders and regional officials with close knowledge of Chinese politics.
A spokeswoman for China’s Foreign Ministry told reporters Friday that she was unaware of the situation. The State Council and the Ministry of Defense did not immediately respond to requests for comment. Li could not be reached immediately.
The Financial Times reported on Friday, citing US officials, that the US government believes Li has been placed under investigation. The Wall Street Journal cited a person close to decision-making in Beijing as saying he was taken away for questioning last week.
The US State Department did not immediately respond to a request for comment on media reports that US intelligence officials believed Li was being investigated for corruption.
US Ambassador to Japan Rahm Emanuel asked on X, formerly Twitter, on Friday whether Li was under house arrest. The U.S. Embassy in Tokyo had no further comment immediately.
Li was last seen in Beijing on August 29 delivering a key speech at a security forum with African nations. Earlier that month he also visited Russia and Belarus.
The investigation into the minister began shortly after he returned from that trip, according to a person in direct contact with the military and two foreign security officials briefed on the case.
By September 3, his ministry had canceled Li’s visit to Vietnam for an annual defense meeting between the two countries scheduled for September 7-8, according to a Vietnamese official. Beijing told officials in Hanoi that Li had a “health condition” when he postponed the event, two Vietnamese officials said.
Li’s failure to attend that meeting, and talks with a senior Singaporean military officer in China that same week, raised questions among regional diplomats and social media users about his whereabouts.
The investigation into Li follows China’s inexplicable replacement of Foreign Minister Qin Gang in July, after a prolonged absence from the public and a shake-up of the leadership of the People’s Liberation Army’s elite missile force, responsible for the conventional and nuclear missiles. Chinese officials initially said Qin’s absence was also due to health reasons.
The moves have raised questions from some observers and diplomats about abrupt changes in China’s leadership at a time when its economy is struggling to recover from strict pandemic shutdowns and its relations with the United States have further soured on a series of issues.
Both Li and Qin were seen by pro-Chinese policy observers as hand-picked by President Xi Jinping, making their absence after less than a year on the job particularly notable. The two men held prominent public roles and also served among China’s five state councilors, a position that surpassed that of a regular minister.
“CLEAN UP” IN MILITARY PROCUREMENT
In July, the military’s procurement unit took the highly unusual step of issuing a notice saying it was trying to “clean up” its bidding process. It called on the public to report irregularities dating back to October 2017, when Li was at the helm. He headed the unit until October 2022.
When asked by journalists last month to comment on the whereabouts of two other former senior military leaders who had not recently been seen in public and whether they were under investigation, a Ministry of Defense spokesperson said the military had “zero tolerance for corruption”, without denying the possibility that they were the subject of an investigation.
“We must always sound the horn, investigate every case, punish every case of corruption and resolutely win the long and hard battle against corruption,” the spokesperson said.
In 2016, Li was appointed deputy commander of the Army’s then-new Strategic Support Force, an elite body tasked with accelerating the development of space and cyber warfare capabilities. The following year he was given the task of heading the military supply unit.
Li was sanctioned by the United States in 2018 for purchasing weapons from Russia’s largest arms exporter, Rosoboronexport.
Beijing has repeatedly said it wants to lift sanctions to facilitate better discussions between the Chinese and US militaries. U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin sought talks with Li at a defense conference in Singapore in June, but they did not go beyond pleasantries, according to a Pentagon spokesman.
(Reporting and writing by RockedBuzz via Reuters newsroom; Editing by Katerina Ang and Daniel Flynn)