The disappearance of Chinese defence chief Li Shangfu highlights the opaque and complex nature of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA), diplomats and analysts say.
Reuters reported on Friday (Sep 15) that Li is under investigation over the corrupt procurement of military equipment during his previous role. Eight other senior officials are also being investigated. His fate has not been officially explained.
HOW POWERFUL WAS LI SHANGFU WITHIN THE PLA SYSTEM?
In the Chinese system, the Minister of National Defense is seen as significantly less powerful than the US defence secretary and many international equivalents.
The position is essentially a diplomatic and ceremonial role without a direct command function.
Even so, Li is among the six military officials under Commander-in-Chief and President Xi Jinping on the core Central Military Commission (CMC) and is one of five State Councillors, a post outranking a regular cabinet minister.
An aerospace engineer who worked in China’s satellite programme, Li was seen as a technocrat who helped implement Xi’s modernisation vision for the PLA, military attaches and analysts say.
HOW DOES THE CHINESE MILITARY SYSTEM OPERATE?
The PLA is the armed wing of the ruling Communist Party and, according to the Pentagon’s annual report on China’s military, “does not directly serve the state but is rather under the direct control of the party”.
As Li rose through his career to this point, he would have been vetted to ensure he was absolutely loyal to the party and to Xi.
The PLA still operates an active cadre of political commissars who flank the command chain, tasked with ensuring loyalty, unity and morale. The commissar system does not have clear equivalents outside traditional Communist militaries.
The CMC, meanwhile, is the party’s highest-level decision-making body on military matters.
“Since becoming CMC Chairman, Xi Jinping has implemented multiple reforms reducing PLA autonomy and greatly strengthening Party control over the military,” notes the Pentagon report, which was released in November 2022.
That adds an extra layer of opacity beyond routine military secrecy, according to foreign defence attaches who scrutinise the PLA.
DO THE SYSTEMIC DIFFERENCES MATTER?
For sure. The PLA is already the world’s largest fighting force and growing more capable and modernised. As it absorbs new weapons, its system is changing too, with the creation in recent years of new unified regional commands and a Strategic Support Force to cover its space and cyber warfare capabilities – a body Li was deputy commander of in 2016.
As the PLA’s power and reach expands, foreign militaries are eager to learn more about how it functions and the strategic intentions of its leadership – efforts that underpin military-to-military to diplomacy.
The disappearance of Li has raised concerns among some diplomats and analysts that Chinese military outreach is being trumped by an internal security clampdown.
US defence chiefs are eager to restore routine communications with their Chinese counterparts amid regional tensions.
Li, who was sanctioned by the US in 2018 over the purchase of Russian weapons, shunned formal discussions with US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin in Singapore in June.