This article was originally published by Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty and is reprinted with permission.
What’s Driving Beijing’s Leadership Turbulence?
Less than two months after Qin Gang, who had been serving as China’s foreign minister, disappeared and was replaced, Chinese Defense Minister Li Shangfu has also disappeared from public view and is believed to be under investigation.
What does the turmoil mean for Beijing’s military and foreign policy establishment?
Finding Perspective: According to a report by the Financial Times, the U.S. government believes that Li has been placed under investigation.
There has been no official pronouncement, but Li has not been seen in public for more than three weeks.
One U.S. official who spoke to the British newspaper said the probe into Li, who headed the People’s Liberation Army’s main department for procuring and developing weapons from September 2017 until last October, was corruption-related. Li previously headed the Xichang Satellite Launch Center for a decade and was also sanctioned by the United States in 2018 for weapons deals with Russia.
This is relevant as August saw purges of generals within the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) Rocket Force and Li’s potential investigation could be linked to those cases.
The sequence for Li also has echoes of Qin’s removal in July as foreign minister.
Speculation had run over what could be behind that move, but a September 19 Wall Street Journal report may add some clarity.
Citing “people familiar with the matter,” the Journal reported that Qin was stripped of his title because of an extramarital affair that lasted while he was China’s ambassador to Washington before assuming his foreign minister post.
Senior Chinese officials were told, according to the report, that an internal Communist Party investigation found that the affair led to the birth of a child in the United States.
Why It Matters: The instability at home comes as China’s global competition with the United States is growing and scrutiny of senior officials’ dealings with foreigners is intensifying as Beijing looks to remove any — real or imagined — security vulnerabilities.
This has led to some analysis that Chinese leader Xi Jinping may be too consumed with putting out fires at home and that the country’s foreign engagements may suffer. Xi has been less willing to leave the country for extended periods of time, missing the recent Group of 20 summit in India and unexpectedly skipping a business forum at the BRICS summit last month.
Chinese elite politics remain a black box and it’s unclear how the shake ups with Qin and Li have altered Chinese diplomacy. In the case of Qin, it looks to be minimal. He was replaced by his predecessor, Wang Yi, an experienced foreign policy hand that was appointed as director of the Chinese Communist Party’s Central Committee on Foreign Affairs earlier this year.
But the move signals an era of turbulence at the top in Beijing that could continue as the Chinese economy suffers a crisis of confidence not seen since the country’s opening to the world in the late 1970s.
Podcast Corner: The Investigation That Shows China And Russia’s Cooperation On Censorship
On the latest episode, I’m joined by Andrei Soshnikov, who heads RFE/RL’s Russian investigative unit, Systema, and we break down our recent investigation based on leaked documents from closed-door meetings between Chinese and Russian officials where they trade tactics and expertise to censor the Internet and monitor dissent.
Be sure to listen and leave a review on your listening platform of choice. I’d also love to hear what you think. Reach out at [email protected]
Three More Stories From Eurasia
1. CEFC’s Ripples Still Felt In Georgia
CEFC China Energy — a high-flying Chinese conglomerate worth more than $40 billion that went bankrupt following a string of scandals — is coming back into focus in Georgia as the prime minister’s past work with the company is being seen in a new light as he strengthens ties with Beijing.
You can read the full report by my colleague Luka Pertaia from RFE/RL’s Georgian Service and myself here.
The Details: CEFC was known for its meteoric rise that left behind a trail of high-profile commodity deals, politically linked acquisitions, and scandals across Europe, the Middle East, Central Asia, and Africa that analysts say are representative of the blurred lines between lofty investments and China’s geopolitical ambitions.
The company has since unraveled in dramatic fashion, and its founder and chairman hasn’t been seen since he was detained in China on corruption charges in the spring of 2018.
But current Prime Minister Irakli Garibashvili’s work as an adviser to the board of the firm that managed CEFC’s projects in Georgia before he returned to politics in 2019.
His work for the Euro-Asian Management Group received little attention in Georgia or abroad at the time, but that’s changing as Garibashvili moves the country closer to China, including signing a strategic partnership agreement with Beijing in July. Moreover, since Garibashvili returned as prime minister in 2021, every infrastructure project in Georgia worth more than $100 million has involved Chinese firms.
“Garibashvili’s cooperation with CEFC — however brief — gave the foundation for further connections and opened new doors for him with the Chinese that we are seeing today,” Tinatin Khidasheli, who was Georgian defense minister from 2015 to 2016, told me.
A particularly interesting case study is CEFC’s investment in the Poti Free Industrial Zone, a tax-free manufacturing base near the Poti port on Georgia’s Black Sea coast in 2017.
That deal ultimately fell apart as CEFC’s broader fortunes turned, but as Luka and I reported in the article, the ownership of the Georgian companies involved in the deal can be traced back to close associates of Bidzina Ivanishvili, the billionaire founder of the governing Georgian Dream party and a former prime minister.
Those links were further borne out in the 2021 Pandora Papers leak of offshore financial documents, which also showed the ownership structure more clearly and showed politics and business overlapping in CEFC’s work in Georgia.
Read more here.
2. Why New Work Rules At A Chinese-Run Mine In Serbia Matter
Strict new rules enforced at a Chinese-operated mine in eastern Serbia have sparked controversy and pushback in the Balkan country over concerns that the company is violating local labor laws, my colleague Sonja Gocanin from RFE/RL’s Balkan Service reports.
What You Need To Know: According to an internal document from the Chinese firm Jinshan Construction leaked to Serbian media in mid-August, workers at the site are expected to begin each shift by lining up in formation for inspection by their managers and to greet their supervisors in unison.
Employees of Jinshan Construction — which manages a large copper mine near the eastern town of Majdanpek — spoke to RFE/RL’s Balkan Service and added that these pre-shift meetings sometimes consist of workers being reprimanded publicly for small infractions and then asked to recite company safety rules.
News of the rules have been criticized by labor unions inside the country and led to an inspection of the mine by the Serbian government.
The controversy has also exposed a wider fissure in Serbia between local and Chinese work cultures and a growing public perception that the country’s authorities are turning a blind eye to unlawful practices by Chinese firms, which are becoming increasingly vital to the national economy.
Jinshan Construction is a subcontractor that operates the mine on behalf of the Chinese mining giant Zijin, which took control of a money-losing copper smelter in the nearby city of Bor in 2018 and has since opened copper and gold mines across eastern Serbia.
Serbia under President Aleksandar Vucic has enthusiastically welcomed Zijin and other Chinese firms into the country, and it’s not the first scandal involving the companies in the Balkans.
3. The China Angle On Slovakia’s Elections
Slovakia is headed to the polls on September 30 where populist former Prime Minister Robert Fico — who plans to reverse the country’s military and political support for neighboring Ukraine — and his SMER party are forecast to get a leading share of votes.
What It Means: If Fico is intent on delivering on his campaign promises, it may prove more difficult for the EU and NATO to forge unified foreign policy positions on Ukraine and Russia — and could be the latest display of war fatigue spreading among Kyiv’s strongest supporters in Europe.
The upcoming election will have larger consequences for Russian influence in Slovakia, but as Nikoleta Nemeckayova lays out in a new report for MapInfluenCE, a project tracking Chinese influence across Europe for the Association for International Affairs in Prague, this could also affect relations between Bratislava and Beijing.
Support for China’s peace document around ending the war in Ukraine that it unveiled in February and Slovakia’s relationship with Taiwan, which remains one of Europe’s strongest, are the main issues that could be shaped.
As the report notes, positive attitudes toward China and Russia are most commonly embraced by Slovak political parties like SMER, the Republika, and SNS, which hold socially conservative and nationalist views in domestic policies.
Narratives around Chinese and Russian foreign policy also provide fodder for these parties in domestic discourse where they’re looking to frame the current pro-EU, pro-Western leadership as not following Slovak’s national interests and that they’re instead controlled by the collective West, particularly the United States, the report says.
There’s still lots to be determined at the ballot box later this month. Even if Fico and SMER perform strongly, no winner can rule within Slovakia’s electrical math without a coalition in parliament. That means it’s possible that even with a strong showing, Fico may not claim the right to form a government and emerge as prime minister again.
Across The Supercontinent
U.K. Spy Scandal: A U.K. parliamentary aide, along with another individual, was arrested in March on charges of violating the Official Secrets Act on behalf of China.
The scandal could shape London’s line in China and the news has already been met angrily by British lawmakers, in part due to the six-month delay in the announcement. The aide, a 28-year-old man, was a parliamentary researcher for the Conservative Party, a position that allows access to some sensitive information. He was released on bail and has denied the charges.
Baerbock’s Words: Beijing summoned the German ambassador to China after Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock called Xi a “dictator,” in the latest flare-up of tensions between the countries.
Another Step From Tbilisi: Georgian Prime Minister Irakli Gharibashvili announced on September 11 that Chinese citizens can now enjoy visa-free travel to the South Caucasus nation, RFE/RL’s Georgian Service reported.
Beijing’s New Man In Kabul: China became the first country to formally name a new ambassador to Afghanistan since the Taliban’s takeover in August 2021.
Beijing did not indicate any wider steps toward formal recognition of the Taliban, but the appointment highlights that China’s practical ties are growing.
One Thing To Watch
Despite tensions staying high, talks are ongoing between Beijing and Washington.
Wang Yi, China’s top diplomat, recently held multiple meetings with White House national-security adviser Jake Sullivan in Malta and Secretary of State Antony Blinken met with Chinese Vice President Han Zheng on the sidelines of the United Nations General Assembly in New York this week. Wang and Sullivan also held a secret meeting in Vienna in May.
The meetings have set the stage for the revival of high-level contacts that were derailed earlier this year after a suspected Chinese surveillance balloon drifted across Canada and the United States. The talks are believed to be paving the way for Xi’s expected attendance at a summit of Asia-Pacific leaders in San Francisco in November — as well as a possible summit on the sidelines of the event with U.S. President Joe Biden.