China removed defence minister Li Shangfu and ousted ex-foreign minister Qin Gang from its cabinet on Tuesday, state media said, in a major reshuffle of top leadership.
The news comes after months of speculation about the country’s cabinet, including confusion over the abrupt removal of Qin from office in July without explanation and the months-long absence of Li from public view.
Both Qin and Li are believed by experts to have been personally selected for their roles by President Xi Jinping.
On Tuesday state broadcaster CCTV announced the removals in its regular evening bulletin, but did not offer reasons for the ministers’ fall from grace.
No replacement for Li as defence minister was announced.
Previously it had been reported that the US government believed Li was under investigation and had been stripped of his ministerial duties, but China had refused to comment on the matter.
Li travelled to Russia in August to attend a security conference near Moscow on August 15. Two days later, the government of Belarus released handout photographs of Li meeting with Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko in Minsk.
But since then, he has vanished from public view.
Li’s now confirmed removal means there is no apparent host for China’s regional security dialogue next week, the Xiangshan Forum, which is due to be attended by representatives from the US Department of Defense.
Xi’s ‘unparalleled’ power
Experts said Tuesday’s announcement deepened the recent uncertainty around China’s top leadership.
Neil Thomas, Chinese politics fellow at the Asia Society Policy Institute, told AFP that the recent upheaval “hints at severe deficiencies in the vetting process for top officials at the 20th Party Congress last year, possibly due to lower-level officials not wanting to push back against Xi’s preferred candidates”.
But the removal of Li and Qin is “unlikely to significantly undermine (Xi’s) political authority, as neither was part of his true inner circle”, Thomas said.
“Their purge reinforces to other officials the importance of retaining Xi’s favour.”
As well as being removed as defence minister, Li has also lost his position on the State Council, China’s cabinet.
Former foreign minister Qin, who was removed from office by Beijing’s top lawmaking body after just 207 days in the job, has now also been stripped of his cabinet position.
He was replaced by Wang Yi, a veteran diplomat who served as foreign minister before Qin and who outranked him in the Chinese government hierarchy.
Xi’s “willingness to correct course despite the optics suggest he is confident that such decisions do not have major repercussions,” Yun Sun, senior fellow and director of the China Program at the Stimson Center in Washington, told AFP, adding that “Xi’s control and power are unparalleled”.
Any possible investigation into Li is “likely to continue for a while and we will not know the true reason for a long time,” Sun said.
That opacity was also evident when China announced recently a new leadership for its Rocket Force, the army unit that oversees its nuclear arsenal, as media reported a corruption probe involving its former chief.
The navy’s former deputy commander, Wang Houbin, was named as the new commander of the force in a brief article by state news agency Xinhua reporting his promotion to the rank of general.
His predecessor, Li Yuchao, had not been seen in public for weeks and Xinhua gave no explanation for his removal.
CCTV also announced Tuesday that science and technology minister Wang Zhigang and finance minister Liu Kun had been removed from their posts.
They will be replaced by current ministry of science and technology party secretary Yin Hejun and finance ministry party secretary Lan Fo’an respectively.
Adam Ni, publisher of the China Neican newsletter, told AFP the dismissals showed “elite politics at play”.
“Leadership instability continues unabated despite the cementing of paramount power by Xi,” he said, adding “all those below Xi with the exception of very few are subjected to quick falls from power”.
“They can be picked and they can be discarded,” Ni said.