The ministers’ disappearance underscores China’s unpredictability as Xi tightens his grip | Albiseyler

The ministers' disappearance underscores China's unpredictability as Xi tightens his grip

Qin Gang, Chinese Foreign Minister, in Berlin on May 9; Li Shangfu, China’s Minister of National Defense, in Singapore on June 4. Credit – Thomas Trutschel—picture-alliance/dpa/AP; Vincent Thian – AP

GGeneral Li Shangfu, China’s defense minister, was last seen in public on August 29 when he gave a nondescript speech at the China-Africa Security Forum in Beijing. When he conspicuously failed to attend an international meeting he was scheduled to attend in early September, Chinese officials said it was due to a “health condition.” News hinted last week that he was in fact being investigated for corruption and to be removed, but a Chinese spokesman would not confirm this to reporters.

Li’s mysterious absence follows the similar disappearance of China’s former foreign minister Qin Gang, who was last seen in public on June 25 before being unceremoniously replaced from a cabinet post by his predecessor, Wang Yi. Qin – who was also initially said to be facing unspecified “health issues” amid intense speculation and rumors of an extramarital affair – has still not reappeared in public.

That two high-ranking ministers have disappeared without explanation within months underscores the opaqueness and unpredictability of Xi’s government.

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Such a dramatic upheaval among top Chinese Communist Party officials is quite unusual, Victor Shih, a professor of political science and director of the 21st Century China Center at the University of California, San Diego, tells TIME. Government officials are thoroughly vetted before being appointed and promoted to ensure stability, and Li and Qin have just been promoted to the State Council, the country’s highest administrative body, earlier this year. “One would think that everyone who left had already shown that they were very loyal to (Xi),” Shih says, “or they wouldn’t be in leadership positions.”

But the sudden, inexplicable ousting of Li and Qin not only raises intrigue, but experts say it threatens to further complicate the already difficult challenge of working with China — for foreign businesses and foreign governments alike.

“Businesses don’t like uncertainty of any kind,” Chen Gang, deputy director of the East Asia Institute at the National University of Singapore, told TIME. China’s Lack of Transparency – Govt cut off international access to public data and stopped publishing a number of national economic indicators, such as youth unemployment rate—reduces confidence and increases risk for foreign investors. The looming threat from the sudden apparent removal of two officials who had served in prominent diplomatic roles that the government could suddenly change course adds to the uncertainty of doing business with China, Chen says. Still, he adds, many would welcome a shift in China’s current approach to foreign engagement, which has become increasingly hostile, and the recent cabinet reshuffle could be a “window of opportunity” for that to happen.

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But while it’s not yet clear whether Xi’s foreign or defense policies will actually change as a result, Drew Thompson, a former Pentagon official and senior fellow at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy at the National University of Singapore, told TIME, himself the turnaround highlights the extent to which Xi has consolidated power and made everyone else in the government dispensable.

Even as China’s domestic economy is in turmoil and doubts supposedly hesitation among CCP elders about Xi’s competence, it is likely that current Chinese officials will be even more “afraid to make decisions or speak out,” says Thompson.

“This presents a huge challenge for companies trying to influence or even inform decision-makers in China about the impact of their policies,” he adds. “Foreign partners try to make contact with Chinese counterparts, but do not engage with decision-makers in the party; they work with the implementers.”

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