HONG KONG — China announced the removal of Gen. Li Shangfu as defense minister on Tuesday, the latest ousting of a senior leader in the country who had disappeared from public view with little explanation.
Li and former foreign minister Qin Gang were also stripped of their titles as state councilors on Tuesday, according to state broadcaster CCTV, a rare move to axe officials from the inner circle of the ruling Communist Party.
Li’s firing came almost two months since his absence sparked widespread speculation and three months after Qin — a former ambassador to the United States and once seen as a fast-rising protégé of President Xi Jinping — was himself axed in mysterious circumstances. It also follows a recent shake-up at the head of the country’s nuclear forces.
Beijing is grappling with economic woes and spiraling tensions with the United States. It was unclear whether the turmoil at the top would signal any shift in policy or instead reflect a deepening crackdown on corruption and perceived disloyalty.
Qin’s replacement, Wang Yi, is in Washington this week to meet with Secretary of State Antony Blinken and national security adviser Jake Sullivan, paving the way for a potential first meeting between President Joe Biden and Xi in a year.
No explanation was given for the pair’s removal, as is the norm in the country’s governance. It came after a vote by China’s top lawmakers, the Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress, which opted to leave Li’s position vacant.
Although Li held the title of defense minister, his role was more ceremonial than that of Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin. Nonetheless, the aerospace engineer and military general was a high-profile figure in Xi’s government.
Li, who took the job in March during a cabinet reshuffle, hadn’t been seen in public since Aug. 29.