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Trouble at the top: Disappearances in this communist government are raising questions
02:40 - Source: CNN

Editor’s Note: Frida Ghitis, a former CNN producer and correspondent, is a world affairs columnist. She is a weekly opinion contributor to CNN, a contributing columnist to The Washington Post and a columnist for World Politics Review. The views expressed in this commentary are her own. View more opinion on CNN.

CNN  — 

This is not normal. (Or is it?)

Frida Ghitis

What on Earth is happening in China? The country that has been trying to present itself to the world as an appealing alternative to Western-style democracy looks like the stage of a sinister mystery play, with major characters disappearing from view, and government officials acting like nothing unusual is going on. But this is not normal. Or perhaps it is: Unexplained disappearances are a feature of repressive autocracies.

The latest to vanish from view is China’s Defense Minister Li Shangfu. The People’s Liberation Army (PLA) general became defense minister barely six months ago. Now, nobody seems to know where he is. His last public appearance was in August. Asked about the enigma, the Foreign Ministry’s spokesperson replied, “I’m not aware of the situation.”

Nobody is openly mocking the obviously false statements and the odd happenings, except perhaps the US ambassador to nearby Japan, Rahm Emanuel, who is gleefully sardonic on X, formerly Twitter, relentlessly trolling the Chinese. “Something is rotten in the state of Denmark,” he wrote, quoting Shakespeare’s Hamlet on the suspicious goings-on. In another post, he wrote, “President Xi’s cabinet lineup is now resembling Agatha Christie’s novel ‘And then There Were None,’” listing the half dozen high-ranking officials whose fates are now a puzzle.

When the defense minister pulled out of a scheduled trip to Vietnam earlier this month, Beijing told the hosts that Li had a “health condition.”

Also experiencing “health” issues when he faded from sight over the summer was China’s then-foreign minister, Qin Gang. The urbane high-profile Qin, who had served before as ambassador to the US, was handpicked for the powerful job by Chinese leader Xi Jinping in December. Six months later, he also disappeared. A month later, he was replaced by his predecessor, Wang Yi.

Chinese officials were later told that Qi was fired over “lifestyle issues,” a euphemism for sexual misconduct. He reportedly had an extramarital affair during his time in Washington, The Wall Street Journal reported.

And yet, the multiple high-level dismissals during such a short period suggest that this explanation may not tell the whole story.

The turbulence is not confined to government ministers. In recent months, Beijing also fired two top generals in charge of the PLA’s Rocket Force, which oversees China’s nuclear arsenal.

The turmoil in the top ranks does not convey the stability and confident control that Xi has sought to portray for his rule. Xi, who maneuvered his way into becoming China’s most powerful leader since Mao Zedong, and one of its most repressive, is promoted as an almost-infallible leader by state media.

Li’s ouster, according to several sources, is part of a campaign to uproot corruption. His previous job was in military procurement, a graft-ridden segment of a corruption-plagued People’s Liberation Army. The Wall Street Journal reported that Li was taken away for questioning by authorities.

But anti-corruption campaigns are an ideal vehicle for political crackdowns, and in the opaque world of China’s regime, with no official explanation, there’s much that doesn’t meet the eye.

The upheaval, and the ongoing crackdown, may help explain Xi’s curious absence at major international events recently. He missed this week’s United Nations General Assembly, and he didn’t attend the summit of the Group of Twenty, the G20, an event in which he had participated unfailingly for more than a decade,

When asked about his absence there, President Joe Biden said Xi, “has his hands full right now.” Indeed.

It wasn’t supposed to be this way. At last year’s Chinese Communist Party Congress, Xi cemented his position as Beijing’s strongman. Instead of relinquishing power after two full five-year terms, as almost all recent top leaders have done, he was elected to a third term. Earlier, the legislature had abolished presidential term limits, allowing him to potentially stay in power for life.

In a chilling display of ruthlessness, Xi had his predecessor, Hu Jintao, once the most powerful man in China, forcibly removed from the Congress hall. Xi, sitting next to Hu, looked on impassively. 

Barely two months after Xi’s apotheosis, clouds gathered. His signature zero-Covid policy, which kept the country in lockdown long after the world had reopened, proved disastrous, triggering massive protests, which included open calls for political change. A sudden, chaotic reopening resulted in overflowing hospitals and morgues.

And then, the economy appeared to stall. The roaring economy that some Chinese might have felt justified political repression, or at least made it more tolerable, slowed to a crawl. Youth unemployment skyrocketed. (Rahm Emanuel, dripping with sarcasm, joked that the unemployment rate among Xi’s ministers might exceed that of China’s young people.)

It’s a time of tension in Beijing. And when autocrats feel the pressure, they flex their muscles.

“Disappearances” are nothing new. The regime has already shown it won’t let anyone become too powerful or too prominent. That message has been delivered to business leaders, who have, in the past, disappeared with some regularity, only to resurface chastened, meek and careful with every word they say.

It happened to Jack Ma, the Jeff Bezos of China. The billionaire, who seemed to evaporate from the face of the Earth in 2020, reappeared nearly a year later to go into quiet, self-imposed exile.

Several other prominent business figures have suffered the same fate, making it clear that doing business under an authoritarian regime is not the same as working in a democracy, with the rule of law and transparency. And it has happened to regime critics and protesters who took part in demonstrations during the Covid lockdown. Some of them have simply vanished.

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While the rest of the world studies what’s happening inside the black box that is China’s ruling regime, one can only imagine if this were happening in another country. It’s inconceivable that in a free, democratic nation, the defense and foreign ministers would suddenly disappear from view without explanation.

But China, of course, still promotes its system as a superior alternative to western-style democracy; tries to pretend that it’s not a dictatorship. When Germany’s foreign minister said that a victory by Russia in Ukraine would be a dangerous sign “for other dictators in the world, like Xi…,” China bristled, and then lashed out at Germany for referring to Xi Jinping as a dictator.

As this mystery continues, their counterargument may sound increasingly weaker.