July 13, 2024

(Bloomberg) — Chinese Defense Minister Li Shangfu missed a key meeting attended by President Xi Jinping, bolstering reports he’s being investigated for corruption and has been removed from his role.

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Li, who also holds the title of state councilor, wasn’t among the participants of a Politburo study session on Wednesday, according to video footage of the gathering on state broadcaster China Central Television.

While China’s five state councilors don’t always attend the typically monthly sessions of the Communist Party’s top-decision making body, three others in that role were present. Li attended a similar meeting on June 30.

Qin Gang, who has kept his state councilor status after being removed as foreign minister in July without explanation, was also absent from Wednesday’s meeting, where Xi urged officials to safeguard national security as China opens to the outside world.

Li’s absence marked the first time he’s missed an event he was expected to attend since US officials earlier this month said they had intelligence indicating he’d been removed from his post. Reuters reported earlier that Li is under an investigation over procurement of military equipment. China hasn’t commented on the former aerospace engineer’s status but authorities are probing the procurement department for a date range overlapping with Li’s tenure as its head.

The defense chief hasn’t been seen in public since Aug. 29, adding to signs of turbulence in Xi’s government less than a year into his third term. That’s been a concern for investors already worried about China’s economic slowdown, volatile relationship with the US and a growing government focus on national security.

China’s Defense Ministry said Thursday it would hold its annual Xiangshan Forum on Oct. 29-31. Li would normally be expected to attend the gathering of military officials from dozens of other nations, though whether he will this year is unclear. The Defense Ministry didn’t respond to a request for comment.

As defense minister, Li’s job largely involves liaising with foreign militaries. The 65-year-old was sanctioned by Washington in 2018 for allegedly aiding the transfer of Russian weapons to China. Those sanctions have prevented Li from meeting US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin, with China making their removal a condition for any such exchange.

Li’s disappearance and Qin’s ouster — along with the replacement of the two most senior leaders in the People’s Liberation Army’s Rocket Force overseeing China’s nuclear arsenal — have been fodder for Xi’s critics.

“President Xi’s cabinet lineup is now resembling Agatha Christie’s novel And Then There Were None,” the US ambassador to Japan, Rahm Emanuel, wrote on X, formerly known as Twitter.

(Updates with China announcing dates for military forum.)

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