Analyzing China’s Sacking Of Defense Minister Li Shangfu

While China has the sovereign right to make whatever leadership changes it wants without having to explain the reasons why to the public, it’s also a Great Power with global influence whose decisions have a major impact on International Relations, hence why these shake-ups prompted speculation from many.

China just confirmed that Defense Minister Li Shangfu, who’s been missing from public view for weeks, has indeed been sacked exactly as many had hitherto speculated. He’s the second high-ranking official in recent months to be replaced after Foreign Minister Qin Gang, who was also sacked after a lengthy disappearance. This is unusual in and of itself, not even mentioning the fact that both only served for less than a year before leaving their posts.

While China has the sovereign right to make whatever leadership changes it wants without having to explain the reasons why to the public, it’s also a Great Power with global influence whose decisions have a major impact on International Relations, hence why these shake-ups prompted speculation from many. Wondering what might really be going on isn’t “meddling” in that country’s affairs like some of its most zealous supporters might defensively allege, but simply an attempt to better understand its policies.

To be sure, there’ll undoubtedly be those who exploit this development to maliciously fearmonger that China’s stability can no longer be taken for granted, which aims to reduce economic and political confidence in its future. The purpose behind spewing such ill-intended speculation is to make that country’s Western rivals look more appealing by comparison. Any speculation that pushes this conclusion should be looked at with suspicion since it might be a disguised information warfare product.

Having clarified that, these leadership changes do indeed extend credence to certain uncomfortable observations about China, first and foremost the quality of its anti-corruption investigative services. In the best-case scenario that both officials were dismissed because of economic or personal corruption, the first related to theft and the second concerning extramarital affairs like some have speculated was behind Qin’s fall from grace, the question naturally arises as to why this wasn’t detected earlier.

President Xi has made anti-corruption a cornerstone of his presidency, but it appears as though there’s still a lot more work to be done in this respect despite his best efforts. After all, if everything was functioning well, then neither of these two potentially corrupt officials would have ever been appointed to their positions in the first place. Sacking those two risked harming President Xi’s and China’s images, plus it created the pretext for bad actors to maliciously speculate about the country’s stability.

These indisputably disadvantageous outcomes could have been avoided if the anti-corruption investigative services were operating at the level expected of them over a full decade after President Xi decided to prioritize this campaign. Another uncomfortable observation associated with these leadership changes is that they come amidst the worsening of Sino-US relations, which fuels speculation of factional rivalries within the Communist Party of China (CPC) that could have played a role in those two’s sackings.

Like in most countries and especially those of them that are Great Powers, “doves” and “hawks” are considered to be present among China’s policymaking community, which in this context take the form of those who want to pursue a “New Détente” versus those who want to wage a New Cold War. Each vision has its respective pros and cons that are beyond the ambit of the present piece to elaborate on since the point is simply to draw attention to the existence of these two schools.

Qin had previously served as the Chinese Ambassador to the US, during which time he could be described as a “dove” who wanted to improve ties with his hosts (“New Détente”), but he was compelled by circumstances beyond his control to become a “hawk” after February’s balloon incident. A formal replacement has yet to be appointed, but his predecessor State Councilor and Director of the Foreign Affairs Commission of the Central Committee of the CPC Wang Yi assumed his duties.

It’s difficult to ascertain which of these two schools Wang represents since his long diplomatic career has seen him promote policies that advance both of their interests. As for Li, he indisputably represented the “hawkish” one though since his appointment in spite of him being under US sanctions was interpreted as a sign that China was willing to wage the New Cold War that Washington forced upon it. His mysterious dismissal therefore makes some wonder whether Beijing is rethinking the wisdom of this possible policy.

Whether by coincidence or design, the announcement that he’d been sacked came on the same day as the annual gala dinner hosted by the National Committee on US-China Relations, during which time Ambassador Xie Feng read a message from President Xi about the willingness to “advance mutually beneficial cooperation and properly manage differences.” A similar message was conveyed the day later during President Xi’s previously unannounced meeting with Californian Governor Gavin Newsom.

Li’s appointment placed a ceiling on Chinese-US military ties since Beijing refused to let him regularly interact with his American counterpart unless Washington lifted its sanctions. This was a principled policy which proved that China has the self-respect expected of it as a Great Power. That said, the flipside is that it might have inadvertently contributed to their worsening their security dilemma over the past year by depriving their top military officials of the opportunity to candidly engage with one another.

For that reason, Li’s removal might lead to his replacement – whoever that’ll ultimately be since they haven’t been named at the time of this piece’s publication – tapping into the abovementioned opportunity, which could help manage their spiraling rivalry comparatively better than before. This possible outcome, which of course can’t be taken for granted, would align with the friendly message that President Xi sent to the participants of this week’s annual gala dinner in DC.

To review the insight shared in this analysis, the best-case scenario is that Qin and Li were dismissed for corruption-related reasons and not anything more scandalous like espionage, in which case China’s anti-corruption investigative services would look bad for not detecting this before their appointments. More speculatively, factional rivalries between the “dove”/”New Détente” and “hawk”/New Cold War schools might have influenced this too, but the first one arguably benefits for now even if this wasn’t the case.

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