China Watch: Domestic Political Churn Limiting Xi’s Foreign Engagement

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SUMMARY: The disappearance and likely dismissal of PRC Defense Minister Li Shangfu is the latest indicator of serious disciplinary or loyalty problems within China’s military and foreign policy leadership.  In July, Xi removed former Foreign Minister Qin Gang and two senior People’s Liberation Army (PLA) commanders without any official explanation.  Domestic political uncertainties likely contributed to Xi’s absence at the September G20 meeting in India, and Xi may not attend the November APEC summit in San Francisco. 

Beijing is investigating senior PLA leaders likely because of perceived disciplinary or loyalty problems.  US intelligence officials assessed in mid-September that PRC Defense Minister Li Shangfu is under investigation for corruption and is likely to be removed soon, according to Western media reports.   Li’s disappearance comes about a month after Beijing removed the top two officers of the PLA Rocket Force and reportedly put the commander of the PLA Strategic Support Force under investigation.  Li is suspected of corruption related to his previous position as the head of the PLA’s equipment procurement department from 2017 to 2022, but corruption is unlikely to be the only reason.

  • Past purges of senior PLA officers usually contained a political dimension, such as perceived disloyalty or misleading senior Party leaders.  The investigation against Li is particularly unusual because he has personal connections with Xi.  Li’s father served in the Red Army under Xi’s father in the 1940s, and Li’s chief patron in the PLA, Central Military Commission (CMC) Vice Chairman Zhang Youxia, is a close friend of Xi.  Li’s “crimes” are apparently serious enough that Xi chose not to protect him.   
  • The Party’s anticorruption authorities almost certainly conducted thorough investigations into Li’s past performance before he was promoted to defense minister in March 2023.  If Li had committed serious wrongdoings between 2017 and 2022, it is puzzling why the authorities did not discover them during the extensive vetting process.  
  • As we wrote in the 7 August edition of China Watch, commentary in official Party and PLA media suggests that the PRC leadership is worried about civilian and military officials forming their own “factions” or “cliques.”  Such language is usually shorthand for perceived political or loyalty problems. 

The main reason for Qin’s removal is unlikely to be his alleged affair with PRC TV journalist Fu Xiaotian while Qin was the PRC Ambassador to the US from 2021 to 2022, as reported in the Wall Street Journal on 19 September.  Speculations about Qin’s affair with Fu and their alleged child first appeared in Chinese-language social media posts in July, based on separate photos Fu had posted on her social media account showing her son and an interview she conducted with Qin in March 2022.  Netizens jumped to conclusions, and the Journal article essentially repeats the same allegations.  It is unlikely that Qin, as Ambassador to the US, could have had an affair with a prominent journalist without tipping off PRC counterintelligence or disciplinary authorities.  It is even more unlikely that Fu would broadcast the alleged affair on social media.

Internal political churn is already affecting how China conducts its foreign policy.  Xi’s concerns about his national security team likely contributed to his decision to skip the G-20 meeting in India, and Beijing has sent mixed messages as to whether Xi will attend the November APEC summit inSan Francisco and meet with Biden.  Beijing and Washington view a Xi-Biden meeting as a key step toward stabilizing bilateral relations.

  • Qin and Li were both responsible for implementing China’s foreign policy, with Li focusing on military diplomacy.  Xi may not feel secure enough to travel overseas before the authorities have thoroughly investigated Qin, Li, and their associates.  Previous media reporting indicates that Xi is very particular about security and protocol arrangements when traveling overseas, and a lost of trust in his foreign policy team would make him extra cautious about taking foreign trips. 
  • On 4 September, the Ministry of State Security (MSS), China’s main spy agency, published a statement hinting that Xi may not attend the APEC summit because of a “lack of US sincerity” in improving relations with China.  It is rare for the MSS to publicly comment on foreign policy, which could signal that the leadership has lost trust in the foreign ministry.   
  • Washington and Beijing are continuing high-level contacts, but Xi’s personal involvement in improving Sino-US relations remains unclear.  On 16-17 September, US National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan met with PRC Foreign Minister Wang YI in Malta, and US Secretary of State Antony Blinken met with PRC Vice President Han Zheng on 18 September on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly meeting in New York.  Reports on the meetings, however, did not specifically mention a possible Xi-Biden meeting in San Francisco.