Fri, 01 Dec 2023

Hong Kong, September 21 (ANI): First it was China's top diplomat, then the commander and political commissar of the People's Liberation Army Rocket Force (PLARF), and now the country's minister of defense. The list of disappearing leaders just continues to mount, as Beijing draws a veil of secrecy over the obvious failure of the regime's efforts to curb personal greed and excesses. Speculation about the fate of Defense Minister Li Shangfu took on a new luster when US Ambassador to Japan Rahm Emanuel cheekily tweeted that the"unemployment rate" in the Chinese government was very high. On 15 September, The Wall Street Journal reported that Li had been removed from his post. The authorities have refused to divulge anything meaningful about the mysterious disappearance of the defense minister, who has not been seen or heard from since 29 August when he attended a security forum with African nations in Beijing. Since then, he has missed important meetings such as a trip to Vietnam and a Beijing appointment with Singapore's navy chief. Beijing told Vietnam that Li had a "health condition". While it is possible Li is unwell or indisposed in some way, the government's refusal to provide a detailed explanation suggests something more ominous. A Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman merely said she was "not aware of the situation". Of course, this is the normal modus operandi for the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), which prefers secrecy rather than transparency. As of 18 September, Li was still listed on the MND's website as a CMC member, and as a state councilor on the State Council website. If it turns out that Li has in fact been purged, as many currently suspect, he would join the only other Chinese sitting defense ministers to be dismissed, Peng Dehuai in 1959 and Lin Biao in 1971. Li was appointed to lead the Ministry of National Defense (MND) by Chairman Xi Jinping on 12 March. Of course, this reflects poorly on Xi, who is increasingly being shown up as a poor judge of character. While Xi might be able to reward sycophants and loyalists with positions of authority, he is not able to root out their desire for personal gain.

The number of high-profile Chinese figures undergoing investigation is staggering. If the equivalent were to occur in the USA, Secretary of State Antony Blinken, Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin and the top two military commanders of the Strategic Command's nuclear forces would all have been arrested for corruption within a short space of time. One would construe this as nothing short of shocking and alarming! Yet this is what has occurred in China in recent weeks, and the government remains utterly silent as though it were routine, insignificant and unremarkable.

On the other hand, Lyle J. Morris, Senior Fellow for Foreign Policy and National Security at the Asia Society Policy Institute's (ASPI) Center for China Analysis in New York, considers the disappearance of Li Shangfu as a "big deal". One reason is that "Xi handpicked Li to be the next PRC minister of defense six months ago. As such, Xi put a degree of political stock in Li.

There has to be a level of embarrassment for Xi so soon after appointing him.

" Secondly, Morris pointed out,"This would be the second high-profile minister taken down (the other being Qin Gang) whose job it is to interface with foreign country counterparts. In other words, he's not some obscure official that can be swept under the rug with no one noticing." Thirdly, "This follows the abrupt purgelast month of two generals leading the country's Rocket Force, also unprecedented." A fourth factor highlighted by Morris of ASPI is this:"The Central Military Commission (CMC) Equipment Development Department (EDD) (formerly the General Armaments Department) has long been rumored a hotbed of corruption, but with surprisingly few top EED leaders having been detained or removed. In July, the CCP re-upped an investigation into the EDDand PLA procurement processes dating back to October 2017." Given that Li ran the EDD from 2017 till October 2022, he is a prime candidate for investigation and, it now seems, prosecution. Xi is not the first to take on the corruption-riddled PLA but, even after his high-profile campaign, it is obvious that graft still exists even at the highest levels of the organization.

Fifthly, Morris pointed out:"...The retention of CMC Vice Chair Zhang You Xia, who ran the EDD before Li, suggests his status with Xi and within the PLA is sanctimonious. He's one of only a few senior PLA leaders with combat experience and has close ties to Xi. If he emerges unscathed, it suggests he is a 'tiger too bigto hunt'." The American academic added that this"suggests Xi's anti-corruption campaign in the PLA is nowhere near done. It's impossible to completely root out corruption in the PLA. They are a singular power structure within a monopolistic governance structure (CCP). Like the Corleone family, you can selectively remove actors whose corruptpractices become too large to ignore to 'kill the chicken to scare the monkey' and hope the message gets through. But the organized crime system stays intact." Morris expected that the removal of Li would"not greatly influence the trajectory of PLA modernization or combat effectiveness. The Ministry of Defense is a symbolic position with no operational influence over the PLA." Li, who joined the Central Committee in 2017, is in charge only of military diplomacy, and not of PLA affairs per see. One potential advantage of his axing is that this could remove one impediment from US-China military relations. In 2018, Li was sanctioned by Washington DC for buying weapons from Russia. However, his removal is unlikely to greatly change the strained relationship, since Beijing has signaled in several ways that it is unwilling to engage the US in leader-to-leader exchanges due to the"conditions not being right". Li began his career as an aerospace engineer at a satellite and rocket launch center, before climbing his way up the slippery rungs of the PLA. He was reputed to be a favorite of Xi's. The disappearance of Li Shangfu follows on the heels of Foreign Minister Qin Gang's fall from grace. Qin's last public appearance was on 25 June, and no explanation for his sacking has been forthcoming. Xi officially removed him from office by a decree signed on 25 July, and he was promptly replaced by Wang Yi. With just 207 days in office, "wolf warrior" Qin was China's shortest-serving foreign minister. As alluded to earlier, after being absent from public view for several months, PLARF commander General Li Yuchao and political commissar General Liu Guangbin were formally superseded by General Wang Houbin (previously deputy commander of the PLA Navy) and General Xu Xisheng (formerly political commissar of the Southern Theater Command Air Force) on 31 July. Xi's replacement of the top PLARF leadership with navy and air force personnel shows a serious effort to break up patronage networks. Cercius Group, a Canadian consultancy that tracks Chinese politicians, said the status of about ten senior PLARF officers is unclear. Last year, Cercius revealed that lower-level PLARF officials had been detained in late 2022.

Is Li's removal therefore connected to this wide-ranging PLARF purge? Past defense ministers, such as Wei Fenghe, have come from the PLARF, plus the force and EDD (of which Li was director) both work on missiles and rockets. There is certainly a connection between Li and the PLARF given the EDD connection. In July, the CMC called for a probe into corruption related to military equipment procurement over the past six years, and the establishment of an"early warning mechanism for integrity risks in the military". Xi told top brass that they must "focus on solving the prominent problems that persist at party organizations on all levels with regard to enforcing the party's absolute leadership over the military". Furthermore, the president of the PLA's military court was removed just months after his appointment. How widespread is corruption in the PLA and CCP? From 2012-17, more than 13,000 PLA personnel were punished for corruption. In early June 2023, the Central Commission for Discipline Inspection (CCDI), an internal watchdog, stated that more than 39 senior military and political cadres had been arrested since the 20th Party Congress in October 2022 alone. The commission stated it would"resolutely eliminate the cancer of corruption with a zero-tolerance attitude". What is obvious is that Chinese politics, and the CCP, are opaque. Furthermore, it is apparent that Xi has made dubious and ill-fated decisions regarding personnel appointments. Could it be that Xi has not only failed to purge corruption, but has instead made it burrow itself even deeper? Xi has employed none of the usual weapons against corruption that other countries have successfully used. In China there is no free press, nor no independent judiciary.

In fact, last year, Chinese courts achieved an astounding 99.975% conviction rate, a new record even for the party-controlled justice system.

Nor does China have a non-political investigation branch, such as the likes of the FBI in the USA. China prosecutes anti-corruption cases via the CCDI, but this agency is controlled by and accountable to the CCP. Indeed, it is so much under the party's control that its head, General Zhang Shengmin, was Xi's political appointee onto the CMC. Another factor that would reduce corruption is the presence of at least one strong opposition party. Naturally, this is unthinkable to the CCP. Party-states are inherently corrupt, and all the factors that contribute to a continuation of corruption remain under Xi's tight control.

Whilst on the topic of disappearances, one should also remember the unfortunate case of professional tennis player Peng Shuai, who disappeared after accusing retired Vice Premier Zhang Gaoli of sexual assault on 2 November 2021. The government heavily censored the whole episode, and 75-year-old Zhang even appeared in prominent position at the 20th National Congress later that month, as though nothing had ever happened.

Although Peng has appeared in public on the odd occasion since then, it is clear that she had been warned to withdraw her allegations. The implications are clear- Xi and the CCP are concerned about upholding the law only if it is convenient to them.

Furthermore, the general public has zero influence when it comes to seeking justice against overbearing or criminal party leaders. For example, a netizen who posted a photograph of Xi's daughter was given a hefty 14-year jail sentence, certainly an abuse of the justice system.

As observers both inside and outside China wait to hear of the fate of Defense Minister Li Shangfu, it is clear that the CCP has perpetuated a climate of, and opportunity for, self-aggrandizement. There are many in leadership positions who have grasped the chance to make money or to peddle influence- and some might get caught - but Xi himself is unableto exert the absolute control and personal fealty that he so desperately covets. (ANI)

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