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China expels two former defense ministers from Communist Party as military purge deepens

China on Thursday expelled its former Defense Minister Li Shangfu and his predecessor from the ruling Communist Party over corruption allegations, state broadcaster CCTV reported, deepening a sweeping purge within the top ranks of the military.

Li was removed in October last year without explanation after he vanished from public view for two months, amid a series of high-level shakeups that have roiled the world’s largest military.

Li’s mysterious disappearance and drastic ouster just months into his job fueled intense speculation, coming after the surprise sacking of two top generals of the PLA Rocket Force, an elite unit overseeing the China’s nuclear and ballistic missiles, also without explanation.

Thursday’s announcement is the first official confirmation from Chinese authorities that graft allegations are behind his dramatic disappearance.

In a sign of the scale of the high-level purges, Li’s predecessor, Wei Fenghe, was also expelled from the Communist Party Thursday over alleged corruption, according to CCTV.

Both Li and Wei were former members of the Central Military Commission (CMC) – a powerful body headed by Chinese leader Xi Jinping who ultimately commands the armed forces.

Li was placed under the military’s internal investigation over “serious violations of party discipline and law” on August 31 last year, according to CCTV, two days after he was last seen in public at a security forum in Beijing.

The investigation by the CMC’s Commission for Discipline Inspection found Li had allegedly “seriously violated” political and organization disciplines, resisted investigation, sought “personnel benefits” for himself and others, and received “huge sums of money” in bribe as well as bribing others.

“As a senior party and military leader, Li Shangfu betrayed his original mission and lost the principles of party spirit,” the CCTV report said, adding that his actions “betrayed the trust and responsibility placed in him” by the top leadership of the party and the military.

His actions also “severely tainted the political and industry environment of the military equipment sector, caused significant damage to the party’s cause, the development of national defense and the military, and the image of senior leadership,” CCTV said.

“The nature of his misconduct is extremely serious, the impact is exceedingly harmful, and the consequences are particularly severe.”

Wei, Li’s predecessor as defense minister from 2018 to 2023, was also accused of serious violations of political and organization disciplines, resisting investigation, taking bribes, as well as “collapse of faith and loss of loyalty,” according to CCTV.

Both Li and Wei’s cases have been handed to the military procuratorate for prosecution, CCTV said, adding that the two generals had been stripped of their military ranks.

The allegations laid out in the CCTV reports appear to point to corruption in the procurement and development of China’s military equipment, with a likely focus on the Rocket Force – which has been a key element in Xi’s efforts to “modernize” the PLA and transform it into a “world class” fighting force.

Before becoming Defense Minister, Li headed the PLA’s Equipment Development Department for five years, while Wei was the inaugural commander of the Rocket Force when it was revamped at the end of 2015.

Since last summer, more than a dozen high-level military officers and aerospace executives in the military-industrial complex have been stripped of their public roles.

Xi has made rooting out corruption and disloyalty a hallmark of his rule since coming to power in 2012, and the purges suggest that campaign is far from over within the military.

This story has been updated with additional information.

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