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Chinese Defense Minister Li Shangfu is under investigation for corruption and will likely be removed from office, two U.S. officials said this week. This would be the latest in a series of high-profile purges by Beijing’s security forces.

The expected purge of Li, who has noticeably disappeared from the public eye over the past two weeks, amid other firings will heighten feelings of uncertainty over how China’s day-to-day foreign policy is handled.

Analysts say this will also further challenge Xi’s leadership as he consolidates his power. They find that by narrowing his inner circle to yes-men, he has been deprived of opinions and advice that could prevent harmful decisions.

A Chinese official said Li’s dismissal was imminent, but said it was for “health reasons” and not corruption reasons. However, two people working in China’s defense industry said there was widespread consensus that Li’s absence was related to corruption allegations related to his previous position as head of military procurement.

Li, 65, who was named defense minister in March, is one of five state councilors – senior officials – tapped by Xi to form China’s leadership Cabinet this year.

Li was last seen on August 29 when he delivered a keynote speech at the China-Africa Peace and Security Forum in Beijing. At the beginning of last month, he traveled to Belarus and Russia and met with his counterpart Sergei Shoigu in Moscow. He will attend a major international defense and security conference in Beijing next month, the Xiangshan Forum.

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Li is obvious The impeachment would come months after the purge of Chinese Foreign Minister Qin Gang and the leadership of the People’s Liberation Army Missile Force, its lead military unit in charge of the country’s growing arsenal of nuclear weapons and conventional missiles.

“These are some of the most important outward-facing positions in China,” said a senior U.S. official, who like others spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the matter.

Li “is under serious investigation and will most likely be removed,” the official said, noting that the purge of the Rocket Force’s leadership also included corruption allegations. The Financial Times reported Thursday that U.S. officials believe Li is under investigation.

If Li is fired, he would be the second state councilor to be removed from a ministerial post in three months.

“It could be even worse,” the official said, alluding to the possibility of further purges.

Rahm Emanuel, the U.S. ambassador to Japan, indicated Friday that Li had been placed under house arrest. “It could get tight there,” he wrote on X, formerly known as Twitter.

“As Shakespeare wrote in Hamlet, ‘There is something rotten in the state of Denmark,’” Emanuel wrote.

The Chinese embassy in Washington declined to comment on Li’s absence. When asked about Li, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Mao Ning said on Friday that she was “unaware of the situation mentioned.”

Beijing has not publicly explained Li’s absence and Chinese military websites still list him as defense minister. When Chinese officials are fired for corruption or other disciplinary crimes, Beijing traditionally refrains from citing a reason, and confirmation can take months or even years.

When Qin suddenly disappeared from view in June, Beijing’s foreign ministry steadfastly refused to comment, instead deleting his existence from its Chinese-language website. Even when Xi removed the two top leaders of the PLA Rocket Force from power this summer, the only information Beijing gave was the announcement of their replacement.

Since China’s 20th Party Congress last October, Xi has consolidated his power and promoted a cadre of senior officials based on their loyalty and closeness to him. Removing Li, following other officials, would “take a huge toll on Xi Jinping’s reputation and credibility,” said Yun Sun, director of the China program at the Stimson Center. “It would basically suggest that Xi Jinping’s domestic position is in question.”

The housecleaning comes as China’s economy struggles to recover from a disastrous mass lockdown policy during the Covid-19 pandemic, a property market crash and a deepening debt crisis. Uproar over Xi’s domestic problems was likely a factor in his missing the G20 leaders’ summit in New Delhi last week, analysts said.

Given the layoffs of senior diplomats and military officials, “there appears to be a lot of churn and instability in who represents and speaks for China on the world stage,” said Sheena Chestnut Greitens, director of the Asia Policy Program at the University of Texas, Austin.

“As China’s entire system has become increasingly opaque and powers are personalized under Xi Jinping, it is becoming more difficult for external interlocutors to know where China’s foreign policy will go,” Greitens said.

Chinese Foreign Minister Qin Gang was removed from office after just seven months

Dennis Wilder, a former senior China analyst at the CIA, said Xi had created his own dilemma “because he has acquired so much power.” A few years ago, Xi abolished term limits, allowing him an unprecedented third term.

“When you limit a system to one-man rule like that, you shut down discussion and debate within the system and you don’t bring in other opinions that can lead to better decision-making,” said Wilder, now a senior fellow at Georgetown US-China Initiative.

This was followed by Li’s rise to defense minister Several high-profile roles at the forefront of China’s military modernization efforts, including as deputy commander of the PLA Strategic Support Force in 2016, a unit that oversees advanced warfare technology including space and cyber operations.

The following year, he was appointed top military procurement official and headed the People’s Liberation Army’s Equipment Development Division, a powerful unit responsible for weapons purchases.

In recent months, the procurement agency said it had opened an investigation into alleged violations during a period that coincided with Li’s tenure as director.

In July, the ministry issued a notice requesting information about alleged violations in the October 2017 procurement process. The notice listed eight violations, including “active disclosure of secrets,” “unfair handling of matters” and “lack of oversight.” Information was obtained about people who had manipulated the tender process for personal gain.

China’s national strategy to quickly build a military to rival the United States has resulted in billions of dollars flowing to public and private contractors, a process analysts say is easy to corrupt.

“The inherent temptations for senior officials responsible for these programs are great,” Wilder said.

The alleged corruption calls into question the PLA’s professionalism and preparedness, he said. “We tend to judge the PLA based on the equipment they purchased. However, this raises questions about the quality and reliability of the officer corps. Are they working in national defense or are they lining their own pockets?”

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Corruption has long plagued China’s military.

When Xi took power in 2012, he fired the two vice chairmen of the Central Military Commission, who were later accused of corruption.

A few years later, former People’s Liberation Army chief of staff Fang Fenghui was investigated for corruption, and in 2018, Xi fired the Chinese head of Interpol after he reportedly admitted taking more than $2 million in bribes have. In 2019, Fang was sentenced to life in prison on corruption charges.

In 2018, Li and the Equipment Development Division were sanctioned by the United States for violating a law that prohibits significant transactions with people working on behalf of Russian defense or intelligence agencies. These transactions included Russia’s transfer of Su-35 fighter jets and S-400 surface-to-air missile systems to China. The sanctions against Li have raised tensions between Beijing and Washington as US officials seek to restart military dialogue.

Beijing in May rejected a U.S. request for Li to meet with Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin on the sidelines of the Shangri-La Dialogue in Singapore, citing sanctions. The State Department said in May it was not considering lifting sanctions against Li. There were subsequent discussions about revisiting the issue, but there appears to be no willingness to do so, and in any case Li’s removal would bring the issue into question, officials said.

“The state of affairs is now changing from day to day,” said a Chinese government adviser in Beijing. The person said the country’s security apparatus, including the military, intelligence agencies and internal security forces, is under renewed scrutiny.

U.S. officials said systemic problems challenge Xi’s decades-long campaign to root out corruption.

“Some of the People’s Liberation Army’s ongoing problems may be too big for Xi to solve, and they have a real impact on the People’s Liberation Army’s ability to achieve what he wants,” a second US official said. “We know that corruption in the PLA is so deep that this may be a factor. And we know it has had a profound impact on what they can do and how they do it.”

This week, China’s president tried to project an image of control. During an inspection of a People’s Liberation Army unit in northeast China, Xi, dressed in a pale green military shirt, rallied officials to “strictly enforce the training and leadership of troops and maintain a high level of centralization, unity, security and stability.” “, according to the state news agency Xinhua.

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