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China has appointed a former navy chief as its new defence minister, four months after his predecessor disappeared from public view.
Dong Jun, 62, replaces Li Shangfu, who was officially removed as defence minister and member of China’s cabinet in October. The Financial Times previously reported that US officials believe Li, who was last seen in public in August, was under investigation for corruption.
The appointment of a new defence minister, a position that in China serves as the People’s Liberation Army’s face to the outside world, could help smooth engagement between Beijing and Washington on defence matters as the two powers seek to thaw icy bilateral relations.
Dong’s appointment comes as President Xi Jinping tightens control over the China’s armed forces amid a widening crackdown on alleged corruption among senior government officials.
Just hours after the news of the new minister’s appointment, state media also announced the dismissal from China’s top legislative body of nine high-ranking military officers.
No details were given, but two of the officers were from the military’s equipment development department, which was previously led by former defence minister Li and which in July became the subject of a major corruption investigation.
Four of the ousted officers were from the Rocket Force, the arm of the PLA that controls China’s nuclear and conventional missile arsenals. The force’s top two generals disappeared from public earlier this year and were replaced in July.
China earlier this week said it had removed three senior leaders of military state-owned enterprises from a top political advisory body, the latest among dozens of senior cadres that experts believe are under investigation.
Under Xi’s rule, anti-corruption campaigns have targeted eliminating endemic graft in the ruling Communist party and government administration. Few sectors have been spared probes by the party’s internal watchdog over the past decade and analysts say the campaign has removed many of Xi’s political rivals from positions of influence.
The official Xinhua news agency gave no details of former minister Li’s case in its announcement of the appointment of Dong, who was previously the head of the People’s Liberation Army Navy.
Dong’s previous navy experience included roles overseeing the eastern and southern theatres, areas that include Taiwan and the South China Sea. Both theatres have become areas of increasing tension with the US, which opposes the PLA’s increasingly assertive operations around Taiwan and in disputed territories in the South China Sea.
Wen-Ti Sung, a fellow at the Atlantic Council Global China Hub, wrote on the social media platform X that Dong’s extensive naval experience was a sign Beijing saw the South China Sea “as a new priority area of geopolitical contestation between China and the US”.
Jean-Pierre Cabestan, a senior research fellow of the Paris-based Asia Centre think-tank, said Dong’s appointment was a “long overdue” move to “restore an impression of normality” to the defence ministry after the long vacancy created by Li’s ousting.
Unlike his predecessor, Dong is not subject to US sanctions. The Trump administration imposed sanctions on Li in 2018 in connection with China’s purchase of Russian weapons and Beijing had refused to arrange any meeting between him and defence secretary Lloyd Austin while they remained in place.
Separately, state broadcaster CCTV reported that a court in China’s eastern Jiangsu province had on Friday sentenced Cai Esheng, former vice-chair of China’s then banking regulator, to death with a two-year reprieve.
The sentence, which is in effect equivalent to one of life imprisonment, was one of the heaviest against a high-profile regulator that has been imposed as part of the deepening anti-corruption drive.
Cai was convicted of taking bribes of up to Rmb500mn ($71mn) between 2006 and 2021 while “taking advantage” of his position and influence over loan financing, business contracts and “job promotions for others”.
Xi has been tightening Communist party control over financial regulation. Since March, Beijing has in effect put all financial regulatory bodies, including the central bank, under the control of a party-led oversight body, the Central Financial Commission.
Cai, now 72, had been retired for about eight years before he was detained in 2022.