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Missing Leaders? "They are Unwell" By Annunthra K

Updated: Oct 3, 2023

Image courtesy: NDTV

Article 31/ 2023

The issue of cadre corruption in China has garnered considerable media coverage, particularly after General Secretary of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), Xi Jinping, initiated his contentious anti-corruption campaign in 2012. Since then, numerous top-tier military and government figures have been convicted of corrupt practices.

Recently, the issue of corruption in China has resurfaced with the sudden disappearance of China's new foreign minister Qin Gang on July 27, 2023. Speculations abound regarding his situation, including suggestions of falling out of favour with the leadership and rumours of a romantic involvement with a prominent US television presenter. There are also murmurs of health concerns, although Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson Wang Wenbin has denied any knowledge of such reports.

While Qin's absence has gained widespread attention, there have been several other notable disappearances and departures among Chinese officials in recent times. On June 6, 2023, Wu Guoua, the deputy commander of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) Rocket Force, reportedly took his own life—an event that coincided with Xi's inspection of the Eastern Theatre Command. Curiously, the PLA attributed Wu's sudden demise to a cerebral haemorrhage. This incident marked one in a series of unfortunate events within the PLA Rocket Force. Li Yuchao, the force's commander, was taken in for investigation on June 27.

Former Lt. Col. Yao Cheng of the CCP Naval Command shared on Twitter on June 28 that Li was escorted from his office on the morning of June 27. Yao also raised concerns about Li's son studying in the United States, hinting at potential risks to CCP's military intelligence. On June 28, Xi Jinping awarded 'certificates of order' to promote two military officers to the rank of general, signalling the need to fill the void left by these disappearances.

Another startling investigation involves former defence minister Wei Fenghe, who squarely attributed the conflict in Galwan to India. There is a connection between Li and Wei, as Wei played a pivotal role in bringing Li into service. In addition to Li and Wei, former deputy commander of the rocket force Zhang Zhenhong is also under scrutiny.

The list continues with Liu Guangbin, deputy commander of the rocket force, and Shang Hong, deputy commander of the Strategic Support Force and commander of the space force, both facing investigations. Shang's status as a representative to the National People’s Congress was revoked in 2022, and he has not made any public appearances since. The numerous investigations involving defence officials are sure to impact the morale of the army and signal challenges at the highest levels of governance.

The latest of the disappearances includes the Defence Minister Li Shangfu. Officials have been tight-lipped regarding the enigmatic vanishing of the Defence Minister. He has not made any public appearances or statements since his attendance at a security forum with African nations in Beijing on August 29th. Notably, he was absent from crucial engagements, including a scheduled visit to Vietnam and a planned meeting in Beijing with Singapore's navy chief. Beijing informed Vietnam that Li was experiencing a "health condition.”

As of September 18, Li's official positions as a Central Military Commission (CMC) member on the Ministry of National Defense's (MND) website and as a state councillor on the State Council's website remain unchanged. Should it indeed be confirmed that Li has been purged, as many currently suspect, he would be only the third sitting Chinese defence minister to face dismissal, following Peng Dehuai in 1959 and Lin Biao in 1971.

Chairman Xi Jinping personally appointed Li to lead the Ministry of National Defense (MND) on March 12. This development casts a shadow on Xi's judgement, as he increasingly appears to have made missteps in assessing individuals' character. While Xi may have the authority to grant positions to sycophants and loyalists, he seems to struggle in curbing their pursuit of personal gain.

The sheer number of prominent Chinese figures currently under investigation is remarkable. In 2021, Xi emphasised the importance of young officials solidifying their ideals and remaining steadfast in their loyalty to the party. During his 2023 visit to the Eastern Command, Xi underscored the necessity for the PLA to bolster its capabilities. The recurring emphasis on loyalty among cadres and within the PLA raises questions about underlying issues within both the party and the military, as evidenced by the recent string of disappearances and departures.

In the midst of economic upheaval in China and reported uncertainties among CCP senior members regarding Xi's effectiveness, current Chinese officials are anticipated to grow increasingly hesitant in making decisions or expressing dissenting views," notes Thompson.

"This poses a significant hurdle for companies aiming to sway or even educate Chinese policymakers on the ramifications of their policies," he adds. "When foreign counterparts attempt to interact with their Chinese counterparts, they are not interacting with the party's decision-makers; they are interacting with those tasked with implementation."

The recent wave of disappearances and investigations involving high-ranking officials in China has raised significant concerns about political stability within the country. This unprecedented series of events, including the sudden vanishing of leaders like Defence Minister Li Shangfu and Foreign Minister Qin Gang, has cast a shadow over the Chinese Communist Party's leadership.

The absence of clear information and the lack of transparency surrounding these cases have only added to the uncertainty. The concurrent investigations within the military, particularly in the Equipment Development Department and the Rocket Force, further contribute to an atmosphere of political upheaval. This turmoil not only impacts the functioning of key government and military institutions but also sends ripples through the wider socio-political landscape of China. The repeated calls for loyalty and the heightened scrutiny of officials reflect a leadership grappling with internal challenges, potentially eroding the confidence of both the Chinese public and international observers.

The Political Bureau of the Communist Party of China (CPC) Central Committee, led by General Secretary Xi Jinping, convened a meeting to discuss the results of the first round of disciplinary inspections initiated by the 20th CPC Central Committee. The meeting emphasised the significance of these inspections in identifying and resolving problems, particularly in state-owned enterprises, finance, and sports sectors. While progress has been made, there are still existing issues that require strict measures. The inspections are viewed as a means to strengthen the party's overall leadership and enhance the performance and competitiveness of state-owned enterprises. Additionally, there is an emphasis on ensuring that financial enterprises effectively serve the real economy and national strategies. The meeting underscored the importance of balancing development with security, being prepared for worst-case scenarios, and implementing measures to mitigate major risks. Various other issues were also discussed during the meeting.

The evolving situation underscores the complexities and internal tensions within the Chinese political system. It remains to be seen how these events will shape the future of Chinese politics and governance, but it is clear that they have already left a mark on the stability and coherence of the nation's leadership. The international community will be closely watching for further developments and their potential ramifications on China's domestic and foreign policies.

The Equipment Development Department (EDD) of the Central Military Commission (CMC), formerly known as the General Armaments Department, has been the subject of persistent rumours regarding corruption. Interestingly, there have been relatively few high-ranking EDD officials who have faced detention or removal. In July, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) launched a renewed inquiry into the EDD and the procurement procedures of the People's Liberation Army (PLA) dating back to October 2017.

The personal selection of Li Shangfu and Qin Gang by Xi Jinping raises significant concerns about his discernment in appointing individuals to crucial roles. This raises questions about the stability and effectiveness of China's leadership in the long run. However, the recent sequence of events and investigations suggests a notable level of internal discord that warrants careful consideration. Additionally, Xi's concentration of power within the PLA could also be a source of pressure, potentially contributing to his decisive actions in removing individuals from positions of authority. The current state of China's internal affairs signals for political instability. The uncertainty surrounding key figures and the evident challenges in maintaining a unified leadership structure present substantial hurdles for governance and decision-making processes. As these dynamics continue to unfold, it remains to be seen how they will influence China's domestic and international policies moving forward.


  1. China’s list of disappearing leaders continues to grow. (2023, September 21). The Economic Times.

  2. CPC leadership reviews disciplinary inspection report. (n.d.). Retrieved September 30, 2023, from

  3. “Purify social circle” or meet fate of missing leaders, PLA’s warning to Chinese troops. (2023, September 25). Firstpost.

  4. The growing list of disappearing and resurfacing Chinese leaders, elites. (2023, September 11). The Times of India.

  5. The mystery behind disappearing business tycoons in China. (2023, September 29). The Economic Times.

  6. The mystery of the missing mandarins: There is a crisis of confidence in China that has put Xi’s leadership under spotlight. (2023, September 28). Financialexpress.

(Ms. Annunthra K is a research officer at C3S. The views expressed are those of the author and does not reflect the views of C3S.)
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