Mystery deepened Friday over the fate of China’s defense minister, who has not been seen in more than two weeks — an unexplained absence that comes two months after the disappearance and then replacement of the country’s foreign minister.
As is the norm in China’s opaque system of government, little is known about why Li Shangfu, 65, has not been seen in public since Aug. 29. But a rush of reports in the Western media, as well as public comments by a top U.S. diplomat, have fueled growing speculation.
His future is of great interest in the West, which will be eager to see if Li might be the latest target of a crackdown by the increasingly powerful President Xi Jinping. The removal of Qin Gang as foreign minister and a recent shake-up at the top of the country’s nuclear forces come as Beijing also grapples with economic troubles and spiraling tensions with the United States.
“Clearly there’s some turbulence at the top of the party,” said Alexander Neill, a Singapore-based strategic adviser on Asia-Pacific geopolitics, who noted it was too early to tell exactly what, if anything, has happened to Li.
But “stepping back a bit, clearly there’s a purge within the foreign affairs and defense community,” he told NBC News.
Purge of a ‘princeling?’
Though Li holds the title of defense minister, that role is more ceremonial and not equivalent to that of Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin.
Nonetheless, the aerospace engineer and military general is a senior and high-profile figure in Xi’s government. Like Qin, Li is one of China’s five state councilors, a Cabinet position that ranks higher than a regular minister.
“Li Shangfu is a kind of princeling PLA guy whose background was in engineering, so he was managing China’s rocket space program for many, many years,” Neill said, referring to the People’s Liberation Army, China’s military.
Li also remains sanctioned by Washington for his role in China’s 2017 purchase of Russian weapons. At the time, China expressed “strong indignation” at the move, calling it “unreasonable” and “a mistake.”
China declined a request from the Pentagon for a meeting between Austin and Li during a June security forum in Singapore, citing the U.S. sanctions against him, though the two men did share a handshake at the event.
The defense minister’s time out of the public eye was already raising questions, but on Friday a number of Western media outlets cited multiple unnamed American officials as saying that the U.S. government believes he is under investigation.
Reuters cited 10 people familiar with the matter saying Li had been placed under investigation by Chinese authorities. The investigation relates to procurement of military equipment, according to a regional security official and three people in direct contact with the Chinese military, the news agency said.
Citing several U.S. officials each, the London-based Financial Times said the defense minister had been placed under investigation, while The Wall Street Journal said he had been taken away for questioning and would be removed from his post. The Washington Post reported he is under investigation for corruption and will likely be removed.
NBC News has not confirmed these details.
Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Mao Ning was asked about Li’s absence during a daily briefing Friday, replying, “I don’t know about the situation you mentioned.”
The White House National Security Council declined to comment.
Meanwhile, Rahm Emanuel, Washington’s outspoken ambassador to Japan, weighed in.
Invoking the William Shakespeare play “The Tragedy of Hamlet,” he used the quote “something is rotten in the state of Denmark” in a post on X to describe the internal machinations of the Communist Party of China.
Emanuel questioned whether Li was “placed on house arrest???” although it was not clear whether he had any new information or was just speculating based on news reports.
Last week, Emanuel used the social media site, formerly known as Twitter, to liken the string of disappearances in Xi’s government to “Agatha Christie’s novel ‘And Then There Were None,’” whose characters are killed off on by one.
The questions over Li come at a time when Xi has increased his personal power to an extent not seen since Mao Zedong, the founder of communist China.
Xi has enacted a series of purges and crackdowns related to corruption and ideology, not stinting when it comes to some of the highest echelons of his own party.
Qin, the former foreign minister, was seen as a rising star and a protégé to Xi himself. But in June he disappeared and was replaced by his predecessor a month later without explanation.
Last month, China replaced two generals overseeing the country’s nuclear arsenal, something experts at the time said was an unprecedented shake-up in the country’s missile forces.