Chinese authorities are investigating Defense Minister Li Shangfu for alleged involvement in corruption in the procurement of military equipment, according to ten sources familiar with the investigation.
A regional security official and three people in direct contact with the Chinese military confirmed this. Reuters was unable to obtain details of which equipment purchases were being monitored. Shangfu himself has been missing for more than two weeks.
Eight senior officials from China’s military procurement unit, which Li led from 2017 to 2022, are also under investigation, according to two people with direct ties to the military.
Investigations into Li, who was appointed defense minister in March, and eight of his officials are being conducted by the military’s powerful disciplinary inspection commission, the two people said.
Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko, left, and Chinese Defense Minister General Li Shangfu, right, speak during their talks in Minsk, Belarus, Thursday, August 17, 2023. (Belarusian Presidential Press Office via AP)
Reuters’ detailed examination of the allegations against Li and the timing of the investigation is based on interviews with sources who interact regularly with senior Chinese political and defense leaders, and regional officials with deep knowledge of Chinese politics.
A Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman told reporters on Friday (15/9) that he was not aware of the situation. The State Council and Defense Ministry did not immediately reply to requests for comment. Li could not immediately be reached.
The Financial Times reported on Friday (15/9), citing United States (US) officials, that the US government believed Li was being investigated. The Wall Street Journal quoted a person close to decision-making in Beijing as saying that Li had been taken into custody last week for questioning.
The US State Department did not immediately respond to a request for comment on media reports that US intelligence officials believed Li was being investigated on corruption charges.
U.S. Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin III, right, shakes hands with Chinese Defense Minister Li Shangfu, left, at the 20th International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS) Shangri-La Dialogue, Asia’s annual defense and security forum, in Singapore, June 2, 2023. (Photo: AP)
Li was last seen in Beijing on August 29 while giving an important speech at a security forum with African countries. Earlier that month, he also visited Russia and Belarus.
The investigation into Li was launched shortly after he returned from the two trips, according to a person directly connected to the military and two foreign security officials familiar with the case.
On Sept. 3, his ministry canceled Li’s visit to Vietnam for the annual defense meeting between the two countries scheduled for Sept. 7-8, according to a Vietnamese official. Beijing told officials in Hanoi that Li was hampered by “health conditions” and had to postpone attending the event, two Vietnamese officials said.
Li’s absence from the meeting, and talks with a senior Singaporean military official in China the same week, raised questions among regional diplomats and social media users about his whereabouts.
The probe into Li follows Beijing authorities’ replacement of Foreign Minister Qin Gang in July after a long absence from public view and a leadership shake-up of the People’s Liberation Army’s elite Rocket Force, which is responsible for conventional and nuclear missiles. Chinese officials initially said Qin’s absence was also due to health reasons.
Both Li and Qin are considered by Chinese political observers to be handpicked by President Xi Jinping, making their absence after less than a year in office particularly striking. Both men have prominent roles in terms of interactions with the public and also serve among China’s five state advisers, a position higher than that of ordinary ministers.
Cleaning up Defense Equipment Procurement
In July, the military procurement unit took the highly unusual step of issuing a notice that it was seeking to “clean up” the auction process for procurement of military goods. They invited the public to report irregularities that occurred since October 2017, when Li was still in charge. He runs the unit until October 2022.
When asked last month by journalists to comment on the whereabouts of two other former senior military leaders who had not recently been seen in public and whether they were under investigation, a Defense Ministry spokesman said the military had “zero tolerance for corruption,” without denying the possibility that they is the subject of investigation.
In 2016, Li was appointed deputy commander of the military’s new Strategic Support Force – an elite body tasked with accelerating the development of space and cyber warfare capabilities. He was then assigned the following year to head the military procurement unit.
Li was sanctioned by the US in 2018 over arms purchases from Russia’s largest arms exporter, Rosoboronexport. (ah/ft)