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China's defense minister is off the radar. The government isn't saying what happened


In China this summer, the foreign minister vanished from the public eye, only to be replaced a month later with no explanation. Now the country's defense minister has dropped off the radar. The government's not saying what happened to him, and there's widespread speculation that he's under investigation. Here to talk us through all this, we're joined by NPR's John Ruwitch, who is in Shanghai. John, any clues on what's happened to China's defense minister?

JOHN RUWITCH, BYLINE: No, nothing official, A. I mean, Li Shangfu's last appearance was near the end of August. He spoke at a China-Africa security conference in Beijing. You know, since then, he's missed some scheduled meetings with foreign military officials and other events. There's been media reports outside China, citing U.S. officials saying they believe he's under investigation. We haven't been able to confirm it, but the pattern is familiar, though, if indeed he's been detained. You know, China's leader, Xi Jinping, launched a major anticorruption drive when he took power a decade ago. And it was a tool for cleaning up the party and shoring up its legitimacy, but also for Xi to build his own power by ousting rivals, pushing aside officials that he didn't think he could trust. So it's not unheard of for officials to disappear in some cases, but it's a black box. We don't know what happened to Li.

MARTÍNEZ: And he just got the job not too long ago, right?

RUWITCH: Yeah, correct. He was appointed in March, and it came after a party Congress, where Xi Jinping really demonstrated his dominance over the party by installing allies up and down the system. You know, Li and Qin Gang, who's the former foreign minister who was replaced, they were presumably vetted quite thoroughly by Xi. So the predicament is a bit puzzling. You know, also a few weeks ago, generals at the top of China's rocket force, which oversees its ballistic missiles and nuclear arsenal, were abruptly replaced. So there's been this flurry of activity with no explanations from the ruling Communist Party. Drew Thompson, a former Pentagon official now with the National University of Singapore, says this lack of information raises concerns and fuels speculation.

DREW THOMPSON: I think this hurts them at the end of the day, because how can you have confidence in a system that regularly disappears its high-level leaders, its military officials, its civilian officials and gives no explanation why?

MARTÍNEZ: I think a lot of people are wondering about that. Does any of this, though, John, change the calculus for the U.S. in dealing with China?

RUWITCH: Yeah, possibly not. You know, the defense minister doesn't have the same weight in China as, for instance, the secretary of defense in the U.S. It's a more junior post in the party hierarchy. He doesn't make policy, for instance. But, you know, if Li's disappearance and that of these - the rocket force officers has anything to do with the anticorruption drive, there's potentially, you know, maybe a silver lining in it for Xi. Here's Oriana Skylar Mastro. She's an expert on the People's Liberation Army at Stanford University.

ORIANA SKYLAR MASTRO: Whatever you say about Xi Jinping clamping down domestically, at least for the military, the anticorruption campaign and the increase of his control over the military has led to a greater professionalization of the Chinese armed forces. They are now a more capable, combat-ready force than they were before all of this began.

RUWITCH: But this is disconcerting to outside observers, right? And without knowing actually what happened to these officials and why, it's really hard to draw definitive conclusions.

MARTÍNEZ: NPR's John Ruwitch in Shanghai. John, thanks.

RUWITCH: You bet. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

John Ruwitch is a correspondent with NPR's international desk. He covers Chinese affairs.
A Martínez
A Martínez is one of the hosts of Morning Edition and Up First. He came to NPR in 2021 and is based out of NPR West.

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