September 29, 2023
IntelBrief: Rumors Swirl Amidst the Disappearance of Senior Chinese Officials
Over the last several months, a high-ranking Chinese Communist Party (CCP) official and several high-ranking People’s Liberation Army (PLA) officials have disappeared from public view. At the end of June, People’s Republic of China (PRC) Foreign Minister Qin Gang stopped being seen at official duties and a month later was replaced by his predecessor, Wang Yi. The country’s Defense Minister, Gen. Li Shangfu, was last seen in public on August 29. To date, Beijing has not offered explanations regarding the disappearance of two of the highest-ranking members of the CCP in less than a couple of months, sparking fervent rumors and endless speculation about what potentially caused these individuals to run afoul of Chinese leadership. Qin and Li were likely hand-picked by Chinese President Xi Jinping but only managed to stay in their roles for less than six to seven months, underscoring the opaqueness of Xi’s power consolidation and how decisions are made at the upper echelons of the CCP.
Rumors started swirling in mid-July when Foreign Minister Qin Gang had not been seen in public since June 25. A month later, it was announced that Qin had been removed from his role by a decree signed by Xi and replaced by his predecessor Wang Yi. All references to Qin as the foreign minister were scrubbed from the PRC Ministry of Foreign Affairs website (though they were restored a few days later). Apart from a brief reference to health issues, the CCP has not explained Qin’s removal, which has led to widespread speculation. The brief announcement published by Chinese state media, which stated that Qin had been “removed,” not “dismissed,” could suggest an investigation is underway rather than having been concluded. Online rumors and Western media reports point to an alleged extra-marital affair with a potential espionage twist. Citing sources within the CCP, The Wall Street Journal reported that Qin was cooperating with an investigation into whether his extramarital affair, which allegedly resulted in the birth of a child during his tenure as ambassador to the U.S., has compromised China’s national security.
Interestingly, the online rumors on Chinese social media platforms about Qin Gang’s rise and fall have not been heavily censored by Beijing, but the CCP has criticized Western media’s “malicious hype” over the speculation. While it is not uncommon nor necessarily disqualifying for CCP officials to have mistresses and engage in extramarital affairs, rumors and unconfirmed reports of potential Kompromat, or compromising material, could be troubling and embarrassing. This is especially the case since Qin has been regarded as a close confidant of Xi, which is likely why he rose so swiftly to the highest ranks of the CCP to become one of the youngest foreign ministers in the country’s history.
A little over a month after Qin’s official removal, rumors about the fate of the defense minister, Gen. Li Shangfu, surfaced as he failed to appear at scheduled official meetings. In mid-September, Western media reports suggested Li, along with other officials in the armed forces, had been placed under an investigation for corruption. Reports suggest that the investigation into Li was likely related to a broader probe into military equipment procurement, as he headed the Equipment Development Department of the Central Military Commission between 2017 and 2022. The disappearance of Li follows the reshuffle of the PLA’s Rocket Force (PLARF), which is also responsible for the PRC’s nuclear missiles. Following months of not being seen in public, the Commander and the Political Commissar of the PLARF were replaced in July with no explanation. Given the importance of the PLARF and the seniority of Gen. Li Shangfu, this potential purge is one of the more serious since Xi came to power.
As the leader of the PRC, Xi has prioritized a domestic anti-corruption drive in order to achieve loyalty to the CCP, and himself, above all. This week, China’s former deputy central bank governor, Fan Yifei, was charged with bribery for alleged crimes dating back almost three decades. The drive – as well as the recent charges against Fan – has been reinforced by one of the most popular TV shows in China this year, the Knockout, a criminal drama with clear anti-corruption undertones, including reopening corruption cases that date back decades. While these recent disappearances and potential investigations could be an embarrassment for Xi, he may also be able to use these cases to highlight the need to root out corruption and demonstrate that no official is beyond reproach or exempt from investigations, removals, and dismissals no matter their status, title, or personal relation to the leader. The moves – and the lack of insulation for people even close to the president – illustrate Xi’s further consolidation of power. Early in his tenure, Xi reportedly – and famously – said to a group of senior officials, “You people, you either eat and drink yourself into the grave, or die between the sheets.” Moreover, the lack of information and rampant rumors also highlight the opaque nature of CCP decision-making and how difficult it is for experts, analysts, and policymakers to discern the truth. While Xi may be able to spin the situation to his advantage domestically, foreign audiences — including business leaders and corporate executives with financial interests in China — may not be so easily convinced that all is well. At a time of economic slowdown and high youth unemployment, any questions of stability and predictability could discourage foreign investment.