Malaise in China’s Political System
Prof Rajaram Panda

Not everything seems to be going well in Xi Jinping’s government in China. There have been reports, though unsubstantiated under an authoritarian system, about the intense economic inequality in the society. Information control by the system has prevented the actual situation to be known to the outside world. The backlash from the outside world as a response to Xi Jinping’s aggressive foreign policy has spill-over effects on the country’s economy, thereby accentuating the social divide as the economic gains have not been evenly distributed among the citizens.

Now cracks have surfaced in the political realm, signalling that Xi may be losing control of power. Purges, elimination and even execution of adversaries are common in any authoritarian systems. Kim Jong-un’s governance model in North Korea to perpetuate the dynastic rule is a clear example of this phenomenon. The sudden change of the country’s Foreign Minister recently and now the Defence Minister are indicators that not all is well in Xi’s governance system.

Chinese Defence Minister General Li Shangfu, a veteran of China’s military modernisation drive, who rose through the ranks to become defence minister suddenly went out of public eye within six months since 29 August after delivering a key-note address at a security forum with African nations. Before that he held high-level meetings during a trip to Russia and Belarus. Then the news surfaced that he was being investigated by the ruling Chinese Communist Party and was stripped of his responsibilities.

Li was the second senior Chinese official to go missing after the recent disappearance of former Foreign Minister Qin Gang. Li has been relieved of his command. This is the latest sign of turmoil in Xi’s government, just six months after he installed a collection of loyalist leaders in his Cabinet.[1]

The removal of Li from his post of the defence chief is following Xi’s abrupt purge in August of two generals leading the country’s Rocket Force, which oversees the country’s nuclear and land-based missile arsenal, and the still-unexplained disappearance of then Foreign Minister Qin Gang, who was stripped of his position in July, seven months into the job.

The Xi government reportedly sought information on alleged graft charges during the military’s procurement process dating back to October 2017. Since Li headed the equipment procurement department from September 2017 to October 2022, it was suspected that Li was involved in some wrong doing. This was cited as the reason for his removal from the post of defence chief. Li’s removal is more significant than that of Qin Gang as he served as one of China’s five state councillors, a Cabinet post that ranked higher than a regular minister. As defence chief, he was less visible than the top diplomats who frequently interacted with foreign officials. Li was thus the second state counsellor after Qin to be fired from a ministerial position in three months. Li had abruptly pulled out of an annual meeting with Vietnamese defence officials in September. Li, 65, was due to attend an annual gathering on defence cooperation hosted by Vietnam on its border with China on Sep 7 to Sep 8 but the meeting was postponed after Beijing told Hanoi days before the event that the minister had a "health condition".[2]

Like in case of Qin’s absence ahead of his removal, health condition was given as the reason for Li’s removal too. Though health issue was cited as the reason, the real reason behind Li’s removal seems to be corruption related to graft charges linked to his previous procurement position. The fact that Xi called for “a high level of integrity and unity” during a military inspection gives credence that suspected graft charges were behind Li’s removal.

If one reads three developments in quick succession and joins the dots, it might emerge that the allegations against Li could be serious. First, Li was not heard for three weeks. Second, he was a no-show for his trip to Vietnam. Third, he was absent from his scheduled meeting with the Naval Chief of Singapore. All these point that Li could even be under house arrest or already under house arrest.

Are all these developments pointers that Xi is losing his grip on the military? Though it may be premature to draw such conclusion, these however expose inadequacies in the PLA’s personnel promotion and vetting apparatus. If adequate background checks would have been done before promoting them to high position, Xi could have avoided drastic measures such as purges and thus embarrassment.

There is another twist to this development. Li’s removal has a direct bearing on the US-China relations and is not just an internal issue of China. Both the US and China maintain open lines of military-to-military communication across multiple levels, including senior-most levels. Earlier, the US had reservation over Li’s choice as the defence chief. Li was subject to sanctions by the US since 2018 in connection with China’s purchase of Russian weapons. On China’s part, it had refused to allow any meeting between Li and his counterpart as US sanctions remained in place. Therefore, the US may be pleased that Li is no longer the defence chief.

The US sanctions had prevented a restart in high-level military-to-military contacts, which were halted after then-House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan in August 2022.[3] That visit was followed by a number of massive military exercises around the self-ruled island. Then Taiwan accused that 103 Chinese warplanes flew around Taiwan with a view to intimidate the island to submission. Chinese military also hold large-scale military drills around Taiwan, including heavy bombers, into the islands’ air defence identification zone (ADIZ) and across the so-called median line that separates both sides of the Taiwan Strait.

Beijing observed that the US should drop sanctions on Li if it wants to resume high-level military communications. This was a risky dynamic as Washington and Beijing continue to spar over issues ranging from trade to Taiwan.

In June 2023, Beijing had declined a US request for a meeting with Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin at a high-profile annual security forum in Singapore. Their encounter ended with a handshake. At the forum, Li had warned that conflict with the US would be an “unbearable disaster” but that China sought dialogue over confrontation. In mid-August, Li met high-ranking officials in Russia and Belarus in a show of support for countries diplomatically isolated by the West in the wake of Moscow’s military operation in Ukraine. After Li delivered a keynote address at a security forum with African nations on 29 August, he disappeared from public eye.

It transpires that despite Xi’s policy of securing honesty and integrity among his chosen officials, the dramatic ouster of Qin Gang and Li underscores ‘uncertainty, lack of transparency’ in China’s political system. The abrupt cancellation of Li’s trip followed by unexplained replacement of Foreign Minister Qin Gang in July raised questions about the Chinese leadership’s decision-making. The people of China were more curious to know the reasons for Qin’s sudden removal as they had seen his meteoric ascent through the ranks of the Communist Party and his closeness to Xi Jinping.

The sudden disappearance of two key officials – Li and Qin – sends a message to the outside word that the Chinese elite politics can be too mysterious but Xi Jinping finds no reason to explain this development to the outside world as this is an internal issue and need not be shared.

From the available information, it transpires that the charges against Li are more serious than Qin. In 2018, the US sanctioned Li for buying weapons from Russia’s largest arms exporter, Rosoboronexport, the only state organisation in Russia that specialises on exporting the entire range of military, dual-use products and services and technologies.[4] As the head of the Equipment Development Department of the Central Military Commission, Li had ordered for the purchase of 10 Russian Su-35 combat aircraft in 2017 and equipment related to the S-400 surface-to-air missile system. Chinese officials wanted those sanctions to be dropped to facilitate better discussions between the two sides’ militaries. It was still a risky dynamic as Washington and Beijing were virtually at war over issues ranging from trade to Taiwan. Interestingly, the US-China ties and military dialogue froze in reaction to a visit in 2022 to Taiwan by the then-Speaker of the House of Representatives, Nancy Pelosi, though the US was pushing to restore military dialogue and communications.

During a high-profile annual security forum in Singapore in June 2023, US Defence Secretary Lloyd Austin tried to have talks with Li but their encounter ended only with a handshake. In 2016, Li was made the deputy commander of the military's then-new Strategic Support Force - an elite body tasked with accelerating the development of space and cyber warfare capabilities. He then headed the military's procurement unit from 2017 until he became defence minister. Then suspicion arose around July 2023 about some irregularities in the bidding and procurement process and Xi Jinping wanted to clean up the process.[5] Though no details have been announced, the state machinery seems to be examining all irregularities dating back to 2017.[6] Because of this, Li had to be axed. From being a General and a veteran of China's military modernisation drive who rose through the ranks to become defence minister in March 2023, Li disappeared within six months under the cloud of a corruption probe. It remains unclear what purchases are under scrutiny.[7] If any incriminating evidences emerge against Li, his fate could be worse. The dramatic ouster of two top ministers underscores the uncertainty and lack of transparency in China’s political system.

References

[1]Jesse Johnson, “Missing Chinese defense chief signals turmoil in Xi's government”, The Japan Times, 15 September 2023, https://www.japantimes.co.jp/news/2023/09/15/asia-pacific/politics/china-defense-minister-li-shangfu/?utm_source=
[2] “China's defence minister, not seen in weeks, skipped Vietnam meet”, 15 September 2023, https://www.channelnewsasia.com/asia/china-defence-minister-li-shangfu-skipped-vietnam-meet-3771141
[3]See Rajaram Panda, “Nancy Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan takes the island Nation to international limelight”, 9 August 2022, https://www.vifindia.org/article/2022/august/09/nancy-pelosi-s-visit-to-taiwan-takes-the-island-nation-to-international-limelight
[4] https://roe.ru/eng/
[5]Raymond Cheng and Wang Yun, “China 'investigating' missing Defense Minister Li Shangfu: reports”, 15 September 2023, https://www.globalsecurity.org/wmd/library/news/china/2023/09/china-230915-rfa03.htm?_m=3n%2e002a%2e3718%2eon0ao069c5%2e3gd5
[6]https://www.channelnewsasia.com/asia/china-defence-minister-li-shangfu-skipped-vietnam-meet-3771141
[7] “Li Shangfu, public face of China's military, under corruption probe”, 16 September 2023, https://www.channelnewsasia.com/asia/li-shangfu-public-face-chinas-military-under-corruption-probe-3775611

(The paper is the author’s individual scholastic articulation. The author certifies that the article/paper is original in content, unpublished and it has not been submitted for publication/web upload elsewhere, and that the facts and figures quoted are duly referenced, as needed, and are believed to be correct). (The paper does not necessarily represent the organisational stance... More >>


Image Source: https://www.globaltimes.cn/Portals/0/attachment/2023/2023-06-04/d0c7c729-54bf-431d-ad72-0e24edb3382f.jpeg

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