Communist Party Purge Takes Down Two Former Defense Ministers on Same Day

Chinese state media confirmed the expulsion on Thursday of two former defense ministers, Wei Fenghe and Li Shangfu, from the Communist Party and said they are both facing criminal investigations based on alleged “serious violations of discipline and laws.”

Wei Fenghe retired from China’s Central Military Commission (CMC) in October 2022 and the defense minister position in early 2023, apparently without controversy, in part due to his age. Li Shangfu succeeded him in March 2023, but abruptly disappeared in August before being accused of unspecified improprieties while on the job.

The Communist Party did not explain why Li suddenly vanished from all public obligations at the time. In August, Beijing suddenly announced that genocidal dictator Xi Jinping had fired him, an ominous sign that he may face corruption charges. Despite China being in the throes of multiple significant military challenges – most of them on its borders, where the Communist Party regularly violates the sovereignty of neighboring states – Chinese authorities chose to simply not have anyone hold the office of defense minister until announcing the appointment of the current incumbent, Dong Jun, in December.

Newly elected Chinese Defense Minister Gen. Li Shangfu takes his oath during a session of China’s National People’s Congress (NPC) at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing on March 12, 2023. (Andy Wong/AP)

The Chinese government newspaper China Daily on Friday reported that both former ministers were under investigation “following clues uncovered during cases handled by the Discipline Inspection Commission of the Central Military Commission.”

“According to the statements, both Li and Wei seriously violated political and organizational discipline, and resisted organizational scrutiny,” China Daily continued.

Li reportedly “sought improper benefits in personnel arrangements” and took bribes, among other corrupt acts.

Wei, the outlet continued, reportedly “accepted gifts and money in violation of regulations, exploited his position to benefit others and accepted large sums of money, and is suspected of taking bribes.”

The accusations are notable given their similarity despite Wei holding the defense minister position for much longer – nearly five years from 2018 compared to Li, who took office in March and disappeared in December.

China Daily, citing the flagship Chinese government news agency Xinhua, declared the two officials apostates of communism, claiming they had “lost [their] faith and loyalty” in the Communist Party.

The U.S. outlet Radio Free Asia (RFA) reported on Friday that the criminal investigations appear to be part of a larger purge by Xi that included several other senior military leaders, including two generals with the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) Rocket Force. The South China Morning Post listed “nine generals, including previous and serving commanders from the PLA Rocket Force and the air force as well as a number of CMC officials with the Equipment Development Department” purged in December.

Even prior to the mass firings in December, the Japanese outlet Nikkei described a “great military purge” by Xi taking place in October. Nikkei was one of the few outlets that noted as strange that Wei Fenghe seemed to disappear entirely from the public eye following his retirement, rather than making occasional ceremonial appearances. Wei was absent, the outlet reported, from an annual dinner celebration typically used to bring together current and retired military officials. He was among several top leaders, including Li Shangfu, who did not appear.

The Associated Press

Chinese Defense Minister Wei Fenghe salutes after delivering his opening speech for the Xiangshan Forum, a gathering of the region’s security officials, in Beijing, Monday, Oct. 21, 2019. (Andy Wong, File/AP)

Like RFA, Nikkei cited the Rocket Force, which is in charge of nuclear weapons, as appearing to be the hub of the purge.

“The 69-year-old Wei was Li’s predecessor and also served as both defense chief and state councilor. He is also a former commander of the Second Artillery Corps, the predecessor of the Rocket Force, which oversees China’s nuclear and missile arsenals,” Nikkei recalled. “The Rocket Force lately has been a source of mystery. In late July, its two top officials were suddenly removed from their posts.”

“It has also emerged that many senior Rocket Force officers have been detained,” the outlet added. “Still, the already retired Wei is not even a Central Military Commission member. This has observers pondering what might have been behind his absence.”

Given the secrecy with which the Chinese Communist Party operates, it remains unclear if those expulsions were related to the situation surrounding Li Shangfu. Li’s background prior to becoming defense minister was focused on weapons procurement, and the few rumors allowed to circulate about his vanishing in China suggested that he may have used his position in charge of lucrative weapons deals to enrich himself.

Li’s disappearance occurred almost simultaneously with the abrupt absence of then-Foreign Minister Qin Gang. Qin, who rocketed to the top diplomatic post as a personal favorite of Xi’s despite his young age, suddenly stopped showing up at public engagements in June 2023. While Li’s disappearance prompted quiet rumors of potential corruption, the Chinese government let rumors about Qin run rampant on the regime-controlled social media application Weibo, the most commonly shared one being that he had illicitly fathered an American child with a journalist. The Chinese government announced in July that Qin lost his position as foreign minister, offering no concrete explanation, and he has not been seen in public since.

Follow Frances Martel on Facebook and Twitter.

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