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

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

Qin Gang, Foreign Minister of China, 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 an unspecified speech at a China-Africa security forum in Beijing. When he conspicuously failed to appear at an international meeting he was expected to attend in early September, Chinese officials said it was due to a “health condition.” Reports last week suggests he is indeed under investigation for corruption and should 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 his ministerial 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 resurfaced in public.

That two high-profile ministers have disappeared without explanation in the space of a few months underscores the opacity and unpredictability of Xi Jinping’s government.

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Such a dramatic upheaval among the highest ranks of the Chinese Communist Party is quite unusual, Victor Shih, professor of political science and director of the 21st Century China Center at the University of California at San Diego, told TIME. Government officials are thoroughly vetted before appointments and promotions to ensure stability, and Li and Qin had just been elevated to the State Council, the country’s top administrative body, earlier this year. “You would think that everyone who is left has already shown that they are very loyal to (Xi),” says Shih, “otherwise they would not be in senior positions.”

But more than just creating intrigue, the sudden, unexplained ousters of Li and Qin also threaten, experts say, to further complicate the already difficult challenge of working with China — both for foreign companies and foreign governments.

“Companies 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 has stopped publishing a number of national economic indicators, such as youth unemployment—reduces confidence and increases risk for foreign investors. The looming threat, implied by the sudden apparent removal of two officials who served in prominent diplomatic roles, that the government could change course at a moment’s notice exacerbates the uncertainty of doing business with China, Chen says. That said, he adds, many would welcome a shift in China’s current approach to foreign engagement, which has become increasingly hostile, and the latest cabinet reshuffle could be a “window of opportunity” for it to Take place.

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But while it’s still unclear 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, tells TIME, itself the turnover highlights the extent to which Xi has consolidated power and made everyone else in government replaceable.

Though China’s domestic economy is in turmoil and doubt reportedly Lingering among CCP elders about Xi’s competence will only make current Chinese officials even more “afraid to make decisions or speak out,” Thompson says.

“This poses a huge challenge for companies seeking to influence or even inform decision-makers in China about the impact of their policies,” he adds. “When foreign interlocutors seek to engage with Chinese counterparts, they do not engage with decision-makers in the Party; they engage with implementers.”

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