Defense Minister Li Shangfu, who has been out of public view for more than two weeks, has been investigated by Chinese authorities, according to 10 people familiar with the matter.
The investigation into Li concerns the procurement of military equipment, according to a regional security official and three people in direct contact with the Chinese military. Reuters was unable to obtain details on which equipment purchases were under scrutiny.
Eight senior officials from the Chinese military’s procurement unit, which Li headed from 2017 to 2022, are also under investigation, according to two of the people in direct contact with the military.
The investigation into Li, who was appointed defense minister in March, and the eight officials is being conducted by the military’s powerful Disciplinary Inspection Committee, these two people said.
Reuters’ detailed investigation into the allegations against Li and the timing of the investigation is based on interviews with sources who are in regular contact with senior Chinese political and defense leaders, and regional officials with close knowledge of Chinese politics.
A Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman told reporters on Friday that she was not aware of the situation. The State Council and the Ministry of Defense did not immediately return requests for comment. Li could not immediately be reached.
The Financial Times reported on Friday, citing US officials, that the US government believes Li has been investigated. The Wall Street Journal quoted a person close to decision-making in Beijing as saying he was taken in for questioning last week.
The U.S. State Department did not immediately respond to a request for comment on media reports that U.S. intelligence officials believed Li was under investigation for corruption.
The US ambassador to Japan, Rahm Emanuel, asked on Friday on X, formerly Twitter, whether Li was under house arrest. The U.S. Embassy in Tokyo had no immediate further comment.
Li was last seen in Beijing on August 29, delivering a keynote speech at a security forum with African countries. Earlier that month he also visited Russia and Belarus.
The investigation into the minister began shortly after his return from that trip, according to a person in direct contact with the military and two foreign security officials briefed on the matter.
According to a Vietnamese official, his ministry on September 3 canceled a visit by Li to Vietnam for an annual defense meeting between the two countries scheduled for September 7-8. Beijing told officials in Hanoi that Li had a “health problem” when it postponed the event, two Vietnamese officials said.
The fact that Li did not attend that meeting and spoke to a senior Singaporean military official in China the 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, following a prolonged absence from public view and a shake-up in the leadership of the elite People’s Liberation Army Rocket Force, which is responsible for conventional and nuclear missiles. Chinese officials initially said Qin’s absence was also due to health reasons.
The moves have raised questions among some observers and diplomats about the abrupt changes in China’s leadership at a time when the Chinese economy is struggling to recover from strict pandemic shutdowns and relations with the United States have further soured over a range of issues .
Both Li and Qin were seen by observers of Chinese politics as handpicked by President Xi Jinping, making their absence after less than a year particularly notable. The two men held prominent public positions and were also members of China’s five state councilors, a post that ranks higher than that of an ordinary minister.
“CLEANING” ON MILITARY PURCHASE
In July, the Army’s procurement unit took the highly unusual step of issuing a notice that it wanted to “clean up” its bidding process. It invited the public to report irregularities dating back to October 2017, when Li was at the helm. He led the unit until October 2022.
When asked by reporters last month to comment on the whereabouts of two other former senior military leaders who had not been seen in public recently and whether they were under investigation, a Defense Department spokesman said the military “ has zero tolerance for corruption,” without denying the possibility that they were the subject of an investigation.
“We must always blow the horn, investigate every case, punish every form of corruption and resolutely win the hard and long battle against corruption,” the spokesperson said.
In 2016, Li was named deputy commander of the military’s then-new Strategic Support Force – an elite body charged with accelerating the development of space and cyberwarfare capabilities. The following year he was assigned to head the Army’s procurement unit.
Li was sanctioned by the US in 2018 over arms purchases from Russia’s largest arms exporter, Rosoboronexport.
Beijing has repeatedly said it wants sanctions removed to allow 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 came no further than pleasantries, a Pentagon spokesman said.
(Except for the headline, this story has not been edited by NDTV staff and is published from a syndicated feed.)