Li was appointed to his post in March. Like Qin, he is also one of China’s five State Councillors, a Cabinet position that ranks higher than a regular minister.
As of Friday morning, Li’s photo and biography were still visible on the website of the Ministry of National Defense.
Before Li was appointed to his post in March, he had headed the military’s procurement unit.
In a rare notice in July, the unit said it was looking to “clean up” its bidding process and invited the public to report irregularities dating back to 2017. There has been no update on possible findings.
Li’s absence is being particularly closely watched by the United States, which has not dropped sanctions imposed on him in 2018 for buying weapons from Russia’s largest arms exporter, Rosoboronexport.
Chinese officials have repeatedly said they want those sanctions dropped to facilitate better discussions between the two sides’ militaries. US Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin attempted talks with Li during a defence conference in Singapore in June, but did not get beyond a handshake.
Li has refused to hold meetings with US counterparts until Washington lifts sanctions on him.
The latest apparent removal of an elite Chinese official from public view led Ambassador Emanuel, who has been openly critical of Chinese President Xi Jinping, to fuel speculation about the issue on Sep 7 and again one week later.
“President Xi’s cabinet lineup is now resembling Agatha Christie’s novel And Then There Were None. First, Foreign Minister Qin Gang goes missing, then the Rocket Force commanders go missing, and now Defense Minister Li Shangfu hasn’t been seen in public for two weeks,” Emanuel posted last week on X, the former Twitter, using the hashtag #MysteryInBeijingBuilding.
On Thursday he openly questioned whether Beijing authorities have restricted Li’s movements.
“1st: Defense Minister Li Shangfu hasn’t been seen or heard from in 3 weeks. 2nd: He was a no-show for his trip to Vietnam,” he posted on his official ambassador account.
“Now: He’s absent from his scheduled meeting with the Singaporean Chief of Navy because he was placed on house arrest???…Might be getting crowded in there.”
Wen-Ti Sung, political scientist at the Australian National University, said while Li had been a “roadblock” in US-China military relations his unexplained absence is problematic for China’s international relations in other ways.
“Other countries will be wondering something as basic as whose number to call when they want to set up military dialogues with China,” he said.
Li had been due to attend an annual gathering on defence cooperation hosted by Vietnam on its border with China from Sep 7 to Sep 8, but the meeting was postponed after Beijing told Hanoi days before the event that the minister had a “health condition”, two Vietnamese officials said.