China names new defense minister months after removing predecessor without explanation

China's new Defense Minister Dong Jun, pictured here during a 2020 China-Pakistan joint naval exercise while serving as deputy commander of the PLA Southern Theater Command.

China’s new Defense Minister Dong Jun, pictured here during a 2020 China-Pakistan joint naval exercise while serving as deputy commander of the PLA Southern Theater Command.Ministry of National Defense of the People’s Republic of ChinaHong KongCNN — 

China has named former naval commander Dong Jun as its new defense minister, two months after removing his predecessor Li Shangfu from the role without explanation following Li’s extended absence from public view.

The top body of China’s rubber stamp legislature, the National People’s Congress (NPC), announced Dong’s appointment Friday following their final session for the year, Chinese state media Xinhua reported.

The body also announced that nine military figures had been removed from their positions in the NPC, according to Xinhua. The announcement did not provide reasons for the sweeping move, which comes on the heels of a series of military personnel shake-ups in recent months.

The appointment of the new defense minister Dong, who had served as the top commander of the Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA) Navy since 2021, ends months of speculation over when Beijing would fill the role left vacant after the same political body approved Li’s removal in October.

Li, who was appointed defense minister in March, has not been seen in public since late August, fueling intense speculation about his fate.

His disappearance and subsequent removal followed a series of unexplained personnel shakeups that have roiled the country’s upper ranks, including the dramatic ousting of former Foreign Minister Qin Gang in July and the removal of two leaders from the PLA’s Rocket Force.

Both Li and Qin had taken up their roles earlier this year, hand-picked by Chinese leader Xi Jinping as he stacked important positions with his loyalists upon entering a norm-shattering third term.

Their abrupt dismissals raised questions about the governance of Xi, who has made China’s political system even more opaque as he concentrates power and enforces strict party discipline.

Military shakeups

The removal of the nine PLA figures as NPC delegates is set to fuel speculations about a broader purge in the military, as Xi continues his decade-long drive to crackdown on corruption in its ranks.

While the NPC is largely a rubber-stamp parliament, being appointed a delegate to the organization is an endorsement of one’s political elite status. Previously, NPC delegates have been stripped off their positions due to corruption investigations.

Among those listed Friday are former Rocket Force chief Li Yuchao, who was removed from his post in July, and four other officials who are currently or formerly in the branch.

Two of the NPC dismissals are those affiliated with the Equipment Development Department, which earlier this year announced a crackdown on corruption. Two others were each linked to the Air Force and the Navy, according to Xinhua.

Three of the ousted are at the rank of generals, and four are lieutenant generals.

The shake-up also appears to have hit the military-industrial complex. Earlier this week, Xinhua reported that three executives from the aerospace sector had their positions in the country’s top political advisory body revoked.

A Philippine Coast Guard personnel looks out at a China Coast Guard ship during a resupply mission for the BRP Sierra Madre, in the Second Thomas Shoal in the disputed South China Sea, on Friday, Nov. 10, 2023. Both China and the Philippines lay claims over the shoal while at least three other neighbors also claim the larger Spratly Islands chain it nestles in. Photographer: Lisa Marie David/Bloomberg via Getty Images

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Weeks before Li, the former defense minister, vanished from public view, Xi convened the military’s top brass in Beijing for a meeting, where he emphasized political loyalty, discipline and the party’s “absolute leadership” over the armed forces.

In July, the PLA’s Equipment Development Department also announced a fresh crackdown on corrupt procurement practices, calling for tips on questionable activities dating back to 2017 – coinciding with the time Li took the helm of the department.

But the Chinese government has remained tight-lipped about any investigation, and so far none of the ousted officials have been named in corruption allegations.

The Chinese government has repeatedly declined to comment on Li’s whereabouts and reasons behind his absence. The announcement Friday did not provide further details besides announcing Dong’s appointment.

The Wall Street Journal reported that Li was taken away in September by authorities for questioning, citing a person close to decision making in Beijing.

The Financial Times also reported that the US government believes the defense minister has been placed under investigation, citing American officials. Neither of the reports cited a reason for the investigation.

Dong Jun, new minister

The new minister Dong became the top commander of the Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA) Navy in 2021. On Monday, former submarine commander Hu Zhongming was named in that role during a ceremony promoting him to admiral.

Dong was present at the event and sitting in the front row, according to video broadcast by state media.

Prior to taking top command of the navy, Dong was the deputy commander of the PLA’s Southern Theatre Command, which oversees operations in the South China Sea.

Beijing has become increasingly assertive in the disputed and strategically important waterway under Xi, militarizing islands and using its expanding navy to assert its power in the region, where a handful of Southeast Asian nations hold rival claims.

China's Defence Minister Li Shangfu addresses a speech during the Moscow Conference on International Security in Kubinka, in the outskirts of Moscow, on August 15, 2023. Russian defence minister said on August 15, 2023, that Ukraine's military resources were "almost exhausted", despite support from the West. (Photo by Alexander NEMENOV / AFP) (Photo by ALEXANDER NEMENOV/AFP via Getty Images)

China removes Defense Minister Li Shangfu after two-month disappearance

In China, the defense minister is a largely ceremonial role, serving as the public face of military diplomacy with other countries. Unlike the US defense secretary and other international equivalents, the Chinese defense minister does not have command power, which resides with the Central Military Commission. The defense minister traditionally sits on the commission.

However, the minister plays an important role in China’s military diplomacy, and the appointment of Dong could facilitate the ongoing restoration of high-level defense dialogue between the US and China.

Top US and Chinese generals spoke last week for the first time in over a year, marking the end of a strained silence between senior US and Chinese military officials.

Beijing cut off communication in August 2022 following a visit from then-House Speaker Nancy Pelosi to Taiwan, the self-governing island Beijing’s ruling Communist Party claims despite never having controlled.

China’s former minister Li was sanctioned by the US in 2018 over China’s purchase of Russian weapons, and Beijing had repeatedly suggested that US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin wouldn’t get a meeting with Li unless the sanctions were revoked.

CNN’s Mengchen Zhang, Nectar Gan, and Wayne Chang contributed to this report.

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