China's former foreign minister Qin Gang and former defence minister Li Shangfu are in trouble. That much we know. There is no other plausible explanation for their sudden and prolonged "disappearance" from public view.
Experience suggests that once the Communist Party have finalised the investigations and verdicts against them, their punishments will be made public.
This post answers three questions:
- How senior were Qin and Li before they fell?
- What did happen? And what did NOT happen?
- How unique are their cases?
How senior were Qin and Li?
Some reports have claimed that the fall of Qin and Li shows that the regime is unstable. Others have argued that the two officials are victims of a new wave of purges initiated by Xi Jinping against his opponents.
To think about the implications of their fall, we first need to understand how senior they were in the Chinese system.
The short of it is that Qin and Li were senior leaders but not as consequential as some suggested. They were not in Xi's core leadership team; they had limited political power bases; and they were not Xi's political enemies.
One measure of seniority in the Party-state system is the official's leadership position level (领导职务层次). "Leaders" of all non-private institutions at all levels throughout the Chinese system have these markers of seniority.
There are ten leadership position levels: national level, national level deputy, provincial and ministry level, provincial and ministry level deputy, department and bureau level, department and bureau level deputy, county level, county level deputy, township level, township level deputy.
Qin and Li were both "national level deputy" (国家级副职) leaders, meaning that they were on the second rung of the ladder of seniority. For context, the core Party-state leadership team, the current Politburo Standing Committee, has seven members, all of whom are "national level" leaders. A step down on the ladder, there are around 40 "national level deputy" positions.
Qin and Li are "national level deputy" leaders by virtue of their positions as state councillors of the State Council. The State Council is led by a team of one premier, four vice premiers, five state councillors, and a secretary-general.
So, in terms of formal seniority in the party-state hierarchy, Qin and Li would have been among the top 50 party-state leaders (who currently hold office). In the central government, they would have been among the top dozen officials.
Another measure of their seniority is their membership in key Communist Party bodies. Neither Qin nor Li are on the core leadership team - they were not on the 7-membered Politburo Standing Committee. They were not even members of the larger leadership team, the 24-membered Politburo. However, Qin and Li are Central Committee members: they were among the 200-odd Party elite members that occupy practically all senior leadership positions in the party-state system.
Yet another measure of their seniority is their portfolios. The critical thing to note here is that the positions of the foreign and defence ministers under the Chinese system are less senior than what you may expect under some other systems.
Qin Gang was the Minister of Foreign Affairs. However, under China's system, the top diplomat is usually the head of the General Office of the Central Foreign Affairs Commission. The Central Foreign Affairs Commission is the Central Committee body responsible for the external affairs portfolio. The head of its general office may or may not concurrently hold the foreign minister position.
During Qin Gang's time as the foreign minister, Wang Yi was head of the office, so Qin was not China's top diplomat. Currently, however, Wang Yi occupies both positions.
Institutionally, the Central Foreign Affairs Commission is the top policymaking body in the external affairs portfolio and not the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
In the case of Li Shangfu, he was the Minister of National Defense. However, the defence minister is not the top defence official under China's system. Li is the fourth most senior on the seven-person Central Military Commission, China's supreme military body. In the military hierarchy, he is ranked below the chair and the two deputy chairs of the commission.
Institutionally, the Central Military Commission controls military power in China, not the Ministry of National Defense. The ministry is responsible for the military's interfacing with the public, foreign counterparts, and some other public institutions.
Finally, neither Qin nor Li are heavyweights in Chinese politics with much influence beyond their narrow domains. In Qin's case, his influence is limited to parts of the foreign affairs system, whereas Li is influential in the military's research and development and equipment ecosystems.
What did happen? And what did NOT happen?
Let's clarify the facts before we dive into esoteric territory...
In October 2022, at the 20th Party Congress, Qin Gang was elected as a member of the 20th Central Committee.
On December 30, 2022, Qin was appointed to the foreign minister position by the Standing Committee of the National People's Congress.
On March 12, 2023, Qin was elected as a state councillor by the National People's Congress. At this point, Qin Gang, 56 years old, became a "national level deputy" leader and the youngest person to have entered the ranks of "party and state leaders" (党和国家领导人), which includes all "national level" and the "national level deputy" leaders.
On June 25, 2023, Qin appeared for the last time at a publically reported event.
On July 25, 2023, Qin was "relieved" (免去) of his foreign minister position by the Standing Committee of the National People's Congress.
On October 24, 2023, Qin was "relieved" (免去) of his state councillor position by the Standing Committee of the National People's Congress.
In July 2019, Li Shangfu was promoted to General from Lieutenant General.
In October 2022, at the 20th Party Congress, Li was elected as a member of the 20th Central Committee and a member of the party's Central Military Commission.
On March 12, 2023, Li was elected as a state councillor and appointed to the roles of the Minister of National Defense and member of the PRC Central Military Commission. At this point, Li became a "national level deputy" leader, entering the "party and state leaders" ranks.
On August 29, 2023, Li appeared for the last time at a publically reported event.
On October 24, 2023, Li was "relieved" (免去) of his state councillor and defence minister positions by the Standing Committee of the National People's Congress.
Since both Qin and Li have not been seen in public for months, and they have lost their jobs, we can safely presume they are in trouble.
We know that both of them have been "relieved" (免去) from their ministerial positions and their positions as state councillors. The term in the official notice is "relieved" (免去), which is significant.
An official can be "relieved" from their post(s) for several reasons, including personnel changes, retirement, resignation and minor infractions that necessitate the suspension of duties.
It's important to note this term is a neutral description of what has happened rather than a formal punishment. Neither Qin nor Li has been formally punished by the party or the state (or the military in the latter case). The punishments will be made public once the investigations and verdicts are finalised.
These punishments include administrative punishments by the state, disciplinary actions by the party, disciplinary actions by the military in the case of Li Shangfu, and potentially criminal liability under state laws.
Under the Law of the People's Republic of China on Administrative Punishment of Public Officials, there are six categories of punishment for public officials. They are (in the order of increasing severity): warning (警告), demerit (记过), major demerit (记大过), demotion (降级), dismissal from the post (撤职), and discharge from the civil service (开除).
Under the Regulations on Disciplinary Actions of the Communist Party of China, there are five categories of punishment for Party members (in the order of increasing severity): warning (警告), severe warning (严重警告), dismissal from Party post(s) (撤销党内职务), observe a probation period (of one or two years) (留党察看), and expel from party membership (开除党籍).
The fact that Qin and Li have not received any formal punishment does not mean that none are forthcoming. Being "relieved" from their post is an initial step in investigating and sanctioning them.
On the light end, they could be demoted. On the severe end, they could be kicked out of the Communist Party and the civil service (and the military in the case of Li) and then criminally prosecuted.
It is hard to say where their punishments would fall on the spectrum without being privy to the facts of their cases and the politics behind them. But my gut feeling is that the punishments would be at the heavy end. The two should count themselves lucky if they don't get locked up.
How unique are their cases?