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China summit turmoil raises questions about Xi Jinping’s rule

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At the start of his unprecedented third term, Xi Jinping staffed China’s top ranks with a roster of loyalists he presumably hoped would lead the way in realizing his grand vision for China.

However, less than a year later, a storm of turbulence is rocking Xi’s hand-picked ruling elite, raising questions about his judgment and undermining international confidence in his governance. – at a time when China is facing major economic difficulties at home and increased competition with the United States on the global stage.

In just a few months, two senior Chinese cabinet members who were the country’s main interlocutors with the world have disappeared. Defense Minister Li Shangfu has not been seen in public for three weeks, leading to speculation he is under investigation. A few weeks earlier, Foreign Minister Qin Gang was spectacularly ousted after disappearing from public view for a month.

Their sudden absence comes as Xi seeks to eliminate any perceived threats and vulnerabilities in a bid to bolster national security, amid growing tensions with the West.

Both Li and Qin are among China’s five state councilors, a senior cabinet position that dwarfs that of a regular minister. Li also serves on the Central Military Commission, a powerful body headed by Xi that commands the armed forces.

Meanwhile, the surprise dismissal of two top generals has shaken the People’s Liberation Army Rocket Force, an elite unit created by Xi to modernize China’s conventional and nuclear missile capabilities, raising concerns about to a broader purge within the army.

The Chinese government, which has become even more opaque under Xi, has offered little public explanation for the series of personnel shakeups, nor has it shown the slightest interest in clearing up the inevitable speculation that has since spread. .

On Tuesday, the Wall Street Journal reported that Qin had been involved in an extramarital affair while envoy from China to Washington, citing people familiar with the matter. The Chinese Foreign Ministry declined to comment on this information.

The lack of transparency over the fate of two high-level ministers has dealt a blow to the international image of Beijing, which presents its political model as being more stable and more effective than Western democracies.

Experts say growing uncertainty within China’s ruling elite has exposed vulnerabilities in its one-party system – which have only been amplified by Xi’s concentration of personal power. during what is now his third term.

“What is happening in China really represents and reflects an absolutely enormous political risk emanating from Beijing,” said Drew Thompson, a senior research fellow at the National University of Singapore.

“Political risk concerns both Xi Jinping and his relationships with his hand-picked subordinates, but also the lack of established rules and norms that govern behavior within the system. »

As defense minister, a largely ceremonial role in the Chinese system, Li does not command combat forces. But he is an important face of China’s military diplomacy toward the outside world, said James Char, a researcher at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Singapore.

“If Li Shangfu is really in trouble, Beijing will be viewed very negatively after removing two state councilors so early in Xi Jinping’s third term,” he said.

Since being promoted to the post in March, Li has twice traveled to Moscow to meet his Russian counterpart, visited the Belarusian president in Minsk and shook hands with U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin at a security conference in Singapore.

In recent weeks, however, Li reportedly missed a series of diplomatic engagements, including an annual border defense meeting with Vietnamese officials and a meeting with Singapore’s navy chief in Beijing.

But experts noted that there was a silver lining to Li’s mysterious absence when it came to efforts to stabilize U.S.-China relations.

Li was sanctioned by the United States in 2018 over China’s purchase of Russian weapons, and Beijing has repeatedly suggested that the United States would not get a meeting with Li unless the sanctions were revoked.

If Li were removed as defense minister, it could potentially open a window for high-level military talks to resume between the two superpowers.

The potential fall of Xi’s own supporters would reflect poorly on the top leader, who has concentrated power and decision-making in his own hands to a level not seen in China in recent decades, analysts say.

“Two state councilors single-handedly promoted by Xi ran into trouble in six months. No matter how hard authorities tried to defend them, Xi could not escape responsibility,” said Deng Yuwen, a former editor in head of a Communist Party newspaper. now lives in the United States.

“There will be questions within the party about the type of people it has placed in important positions.”

Rahm Emanuel, the U.S. ambassador to Japan, even compared the makeup of Xi’s cabinet to Agatha Christie’s novel “And Then There Were None.”

“Who will win this unemployment race? Chinese youth or Xi’s cabinet? the ambassador wrote on X, the platform formerly known as Twitter.

China is already grappling with a range of economic problems – from record youth unemployment and growing local government debt to a deepening real estate crisis. Growing uncertainty within Xi’s ruling circle risks fueling a crisis of confidence in the world’s second-largest economy, analysts noted.

“Xi’s latest high-profile purge underscores his belief that ideological cohesion, not economic performance or perceived military prowess, are the cornerstones of a nation’s strength, a lesson he has learned from the collapse of the Soviet Union,” said Craig Singleton, a senior China researcher at the Institute. the Foundation for Defense of Democracies in Washington DC.

“Li’s impeachment may not seriously impinge on relations with the Chinese state, but it will almost certainly reinforce the international business community’s growing concerns about party overreach and diminishing transparency in China .”

Military leader Li, 65, cut his teeth at one of China’s main satellite launch sites in southwest Sichuan province, rising through the ranks to become director.

After three decades at the launch center, he was promoted to the PLA’s weapons headquarters in 2013, shortly after Xi came to power.

Li is believed to be a protégé of General Zhang Youxia, Xi’s childhood friend and closest ally in the military. In a sign of his importance, Zhang was promoted to first vice chairman of the Central Military Commission (CMC) during the leadership reshuffle last October, despite being well past the unofficial retirement age.

From 2017 to 2022, Li was responsible for China’s arms supply as head of the CMC’s equipment development department, a position previously held by Zhang.

In July, days before Rocket Force’s two top generals were abruptly fired, the Department of Equipment Development announced a new crackdown on corrupt procurement practices, calling for information on questionable activities dating back to 2017 – coinciding with Li taking over as leader of the group. department.

Since coming to power, Xi has waged a relentless anti-corruption campaign, which has ensnared hundreds of senior officials and generals and millions of other junior cadres.

“Looking back more than ten years, Xi Jinping is still fighting corruption. He still fights against disloyalty. He always expresses concerns about the military’s loyalty to the party,” said Thompson, a researcher at the National University of Singapore.

“It really reveals fundamental problems in the nature of governance in Beijing. The lack of checks and balances, the over-reliance on top-down party control, does nothing to remove the incentives that underpin the behaviors they are constantly trying to eradicate.”

Even though he has already amassed more power than any other Chinese leader in recent decades, Xi continues to redouble his efforts to consolidate his authority within the party and the military.

Last week, as speculation grew over the defense minister’s fate, Xi called for unity and stability within the military during an inspection in northeast China.

“The lack of political trust among individuals in the system is an underlying driver of this campaign,” Thompson said.

Xi is not the only Chinese leader to have turned against his own inner circle after gaining unrivaled personal power. Chairman Mao Zedong, Communist China’s founding father and most powerful leader before Xi, purged many of his once-trusted allies in the Cultural Revolution.

Char, the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies expert, cautioned that the political upheavals do not suggest Xi is losing his grip on power.

“The very fact that he can fire whoever he wants… speaks volumes about the extent of control Xi has,” Char said.

But he noted that the disappearance of Li and Qin is a symptom of China’s centralized one-party rule.

“Until Xi Jinping has the courage to reform the entire political system…I’m sure these kinds of purges will continue to happen. »