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China’s Defense Minister Is Only The Latest Victim Of Beijing’s Vanishing Act

The recent disappearance of China’s defense minister Li Shangfu is the latest in a long line of mysterious absences involving high profile Chinese figures.
Photo Source: Liu Pengyu, Spokesperson of Chinese Embassy in the U.S. By Jake Smith, DCNF.

The recent disappearance of China’s defense minister Li Shangfu is the latest in a long line of mysterious absences involving high profile Chinese figures.

U.S. intelligence said that Li, who hadn’t been seen in public for weeks, had been removed from his post as defense minister and is currently under questioning by Chinese Communist Party (CCP) authorities, The Wall Street Journal reported on Friday. Li’s alleged disappearance adds to a list of other Chinese politicians and businessmen who have vanished in recent history, with some of them eventually returning to public eye, and others who continue to remain missing.

One such example is Qin Gang, the former Minister of Foreign Affairs of China. Considered a rising star in Chinese politics and a close ally to president Xi Jinping, Qin had previously served as Ambassador to the United States from July 2021 to 2022, and was then promoted to foreign minister position in late 2022, according to the Washington Post.

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Qin was last seen in public on June 25 while meeting Russian, Vietnamese and Sri Lankan diplomats in Beijing, according to the Post. Throughout the rest of June and part of July, Qin was absent from all of his meetings due to unspecified “health reasons,” and his predecessor Wang Yi attended the meetings in his absence.

After weeks of radio silence, Qin was dismissed from his role as foreign minister after only half a year in the position; no reason was given by the National People’s Congress Standing Committee as to why he was dismissed, according to the Post. Chinese state media largely ignored Qin’s dismissal following the news and instead chose to praise Xi’s “passion” for sports and athletic abilities.

“The suddenness and opacity surrounding Qin’s dismissal demonstrates the volatility that has now become a feature of China’s political system under Xi,” Jude Blanchette, Freeman Chair in China Studies at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said to The New York Times.

Qin has not been seen in public since his initial disappearance on June 25, and his name and reference were scrubbed from the internet. His predecessor, Wang, took the role back over the day Qin dismissal was announced.

One unproven theory alleges that Qin had an affair and is under investigation for violating “social morality and family virtues” rules, according to the Post.

“President Xi’s cabinet lineup is now resembling Agatha Christie’s novel ‘And Then There Were None,’” Rahm Emanuel, U.S. Ambassador to Japan, said in a tweet on Sept. 7. “First, Foreign Minister Qin Gang goes missing, then the Rocket Force commanders go missing, and now Defense Minister Li Shangfu hasn’t been seen in public for two weeks.”

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“Who’s going to win this unemployment race? China’s youth or Xi’s cabinet?” Emanuel said.

Days after Qin was removed from Xi’s cabinet, former commander of China’s missile force Li Yuchao was removed from his post after disappearing from public view months prior, according to the Journal. Li’s deputy, General Liu Guangbin, had also vanished from public view several months ago, and though Beijing hasn’t confirmed their current status, foreign officials familiar with the matter believe they are being investigated by the CCP for internal corruption, according to the Financial Times.

Outside of Xi’s cabinet shakeup, a number of high-profile Chinese billionaire executives have received the same treatment, either vanishing and later reappearing or staying missing altogether. One such example is Chinese tech billionaire Jack Ma, who disappeared for months between 2020 and 2021, during which time his companies fell under investigation by Chinese authorities.

Ma had last been seen in October 2020 at the Bund Financial Summit in Shanghai. While at the event, Ma gave a speech criticizing the CCP for not taking enough economic risks, and made a semi-critical remark about Xi’s responsibility as president.

Ma vanished from public view sometime after his speech; during his disappearance, Chinese authorities shut down a $35 billion IPO for Ant Group and launched an investigation into Alibaba for antitrust violations.

“The general iron rule is that there should be no individual centers of power outside of the party,” Richard McGregor, a senior fellow at the Lowy Institute, said to NYT. “The government wants to continue to reap the benefits of his company — but on their terms.”

Ma came back into public view for the first time in January 2021, appearing at an online conference for an annual event honoring rural educators in China. From that point forward Ma rarely made public appearances, sparking a variety of theories about his condition and standing with the CCP, according to Wired Magazine.

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After disappearing from the public eye again for four months, Ma reappeared in March 2023 during a visit at the Yungu school in the eastern Chinese city of Hangzhou, where Alibaba is headquartered, according to the Guardian. Ma is currently “alive” and “happy” teaching classes at a university in Tokyo, said Alibaba president Michael Evans in June, according to CNBC. 

Several other Chinese business tycoons have gone absent in recent times; tech banker and CEO of China Renaissance Bao Fan went missing in February with no initial explanation, causing his company’s stock price to spiral until trading eventually had to be suspended in April, according to CNN. It was later reported than Bao had been taken in by officials from the Central Commission for Discipline Inspection (CCDI) for an investigation into alleged bribery schemes.

Former property business executive Ren Zhiqiang went missing at the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic in March 2020, after calling Xi a “clown” for his handling of the virus, according to Reuters. Months after Ren went missing, the CCDI announced that he was under investigation, and was later sentenced to 18 years in prison for allegedly taking bribes, according to the NYT.

“Ren Zhiqiang lost his ideals and convictions,” the CCP said in a statement following Ren’s arrest, according to NYT. “On major matters of principle, he failed to stay in line with the party’s central authorities.”

“Cracking down on Ren Zhiqiang, using economic crimes to punish him, is a warning to others — killing one to warn a hundred,” Cai Xia, an acquaintance of Ren’s, said to the NYT.

China’s foreign ministry did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

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