Political Disappearances in China

 By Ashu Maan


            Political disappearances in China have again become the talk of the town due to some high-profile disappearances this year. They include the Foreign Minister, Qin Gang, followed by the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) Rocket Force Commander, Liu Guangbin and former deputy Zhang Zhenzhong and lately, the Defence Minister himself, i.e., Li Shangfu. What would explain these disappearances? The nature has changed over time. During Mao’s time, disappearances were carried out of officials who were deemed “Rightist in Ideology” or were “traitors to the cause of socialism”. Since, Xi’s accension to power these disappearances have been explained as anti-corruption drives. This article focuses on the disappearances around the PLA Rocket Force and tries to explain the mystery surrounding these disappearances.

Keywords: CCP, PLA, Political Disappearances, Mass Campaigns, Factionalism, PLA Rocket Force


The Communist Party of China (CPC) was founded to transform impoverished and chaotic China into a modern, prosperous, and equitable society. More than a century down the line, the only equity the Party has achieved in China is its conviction to incarcerate elites and common citizens alike. The Party has time and again reiterated that, China is a nation that is “ruled by law’, however the Party is the final arbiter and there are often high-profile disappearances within the government, academia, business community, and the general population on the pretext of ‘discipline’ or anti-corruption (in case of government officials). Some probable reasons for the recent disappearances are:

  1. Corruption: While corruption is a worldwide phenomenon, Chinese society is rife with it (Wedeman, 2017). Xi Jinping believes that it is due to corruption that the ‘great Chinese civilization’ had to face humiliation for two centuries. After coming to power, Xi started an anti-corruption campaign to weed out corrupt practices from the highest echelons of the Party and military. Incidentally, Xi’s anti-corruption campaign has been running in perpetuity and has become the longest mass campaign started by any party leader (Gong, 2022).

Similar to the civilian government, PLA too is no stranger to corruption (Wang, 2016). The PLA has a culture of promotions based on bribes that are paid in money or kind. This phenomenon was used by the United States for years. The United States cultivated assets within the PLA by buying their promotions for years. It was only after China stole the data from the U.S. Office of Personnel Management (OPM) and used sophisticated Artificial Intelligence to see patterns of U.S. officials’ travels in Africa and Europe to meet with their Chinese assets that China came to know of the deep rot within the PLA (Dorfman, 2020). This appalling new information sent the Party into a frenzy, and it started a brutal crackdown on corrupt officials in 2010 that continued with Xi. 

In case of Li Shangfu and the Rocket Force commander, corruption and espionage are major charges that are being talked about (Chen, 2023). It is not entirely unconceivable that Shangfu and the Rocket Force Commander were engaged in espionage activities in lieu of money.

  1. Inter Factional Struggle: Succeeding leaders in China since Mao have created a faction that has been a source of their power. The Communist Youth League (CYL) served as the source of Hu Jintao’s power whereas the Shanghai Clique was the source of power of Jiang Zemin. The CYL and the Shanghai Clique had dominant position in the Party when Xi Jinping became the General Secretary. However, there is a distinction in Xi’s faction. Xi’s faction is full of his subordinates from his days as provincial leader. Therefore, Xi becomes a source of their power. The Xi Faction is an amalgamation of four factions that he has created throughout his career. They are Zhejiang Gang, Shaanxi Gang, Fujian Gang, and Military-Industry Gang (Technocrats gang). The only common variable among these factions is Xi. While the amalgamation of four factions makes Xi stronger, it subsequently leads to inter factional struggle. The competing factions would want to get better appointments and be a part of Xi’s inner circle. This would make them use Zeng Qinhong’s tactics of starting whisper campaigns to discredit the targeted official and ultimately get him sacked.


While there has been a culture of incarcerating top officials in communist China, the current disappearances of the foreign and defence ministers is unprecedented. Mainly because it has been less than a year since they were appointed to their respective positions. Like elsewhere, government officials in China are vetted thoroughly before being appointed. On top of that Li and Qin were appointed to the State Council, barely six months ago. State Council being the top administrative body, is virtually the inner circle of administration and disappearance of two of its top members raises questions on Xi’s judgement. Consequently, it also tells us that everyone in the current government is replaceable and Xi has a firm grasp on power.

These actions are likely to have political and economic consequences. Unlike the Western free market economic model, China follows a hybrid economic model, that is a mixture of mayor plus market economy. In this model, while the Party set national goals, it is the provincial leaders who work towards achieving them through policy interventions (Jin, 2022). To achieve those goals, provincial leaders work intricately with foreign companies and give various incentives and in return those companies inform decision-makers about the impact of their policies and suggest policy interventions. The disappearance of Li on the alleged pretext of corruption and espionage would make provincial leaders apprehensive of engaging with foreign companies, that might worsen the already faltering economy of China (Campbell, 2023). While the disappearances show Xi’s firm grasp on the Party, such incidents have an impact on continuity and efficiency. Further they will foster a ‘Yes Man Culture’, where the top officials would be subservient to any of Xi’s ideas which essentially becomes a recipe for disaster. Such disappearances will most likely fuel uncertainty in party officials and further cement the “Neo-Maoist” image of Xi being projected by the Western academia and intelligentsia.


Campbell, C. (2023, September 2023). China Faces a Familiar Economic Downturn. But Its Crisis Is Worsened by the War in Ukraine. Retrieved October 2023, from Time: https://time.com/6314365/china-economy-russia-ukraine-war/

Chen, L. (2023, September 18). The public face of China’s military under corruption probe. Retrieved from Reuters: https://www.reuters.com/world/china/public-face-chinas-military-under-corruption-probe-2023-09-16/

Dorfman, Z. (2020, December 21). China used stolen data to expose CIA operatives in Africa and Europe. Retrieved September 2023, from Foreign Policy: https://foreignpolicy.com/2020/12/21/china-stolen-us-data-exposed-cia-operatives-spy-networks/

Gong, T. (2022, May). Fighting Corruption in China. China Review, 22(2), 1-19.

Jin, K. (2022). The New China Playbook (Vol. 1). New York City, New York, United States of America: Viking.

Nakazawa, K. (2023, September 5). Analysis: Xi reprimanded by elders at Beidaihe over direction of nation. Retrieved September 2023, from Nikkei Asia: https://asia.nikkei.com/Editor-s-Picks/China-up-close/Analysis-Xi-reprimanded-by-elders-at-Beidaihe-over-direction-of-nation

Ting, G. (2023, March 24). China’s ruling party gears up to purge ‘black sheep,’ ‘two-faced people’ from ranks. Retrieved September 2023, from Radio Free Asia: https://www.rfa.org/english/news/china/purge-black-sheep-03242023131601.html?utm_source=Sailthru&utm_medium=email&utm_campaign=China%20Brief%20-%2009192023&utm_term=china_brief

Wang, P. (2016). Military Corruption in China: The Role of Guanxi in the Buying and Selling of Military Positions. The China Quaterly, 228, 970-991.

Wedeman, A. (2017). The Intensification of Corruption in China. In K. E. Brodsgaard, Critical Readings on the Chinese Communist Party (pp. 1242-1272). Brill.