China sacked Defense Minister Li Shangfu following the Qin Gang shooting

HONG KONG — China announced Tuesday that it had removed General Li Shangfu as defense minister, the country’s senior leader disappearing from public view with little explanation.

Li and former foreign minister Qin Gang were removed as state councilors on Tuesday, according to state broadcaster CCTV, in a move to ax officials from the ruling Communist Party’s inner circle.

Nearly two months after Li’s firing, his absence sparked widespread speculation and three months after Qin — a former ambassador to the United States and once seen as a fast-rising protégé of President Xi Jinping — was ousted under mysterious circumstances. This follows a recent shake-up at the head of the country’s nuclear forces.

Beijing is grappling with economic crises and swirling tensions with the United States. It is not clear whether the above upheaval signals any change in policy or instead reflects a deepening crackdown on corruption and disloyalty.

“Ultimately, with the country’s State Council now missing two members, Xi Jinping’s focus is on the party’s hegemony over the state,” said Alexander Neal, a Singapore-based strategic consultant on Asia-Pacific geopolitics.

“It’s absolutely a hallmark of his power and control in China,” he told NBC News.

Former foreign minister Qin Gang was a previous high-profile target of a crackdown by the country’s increasingly powerful leader.Its Takeuma / Pool via AP file

Wang Yi, replacing Qin, is scheduled to meet with Secretary of State Anthony Blinken and National Security Adviser Jack Sullivan in Washington this week, paving the way for a possible first meeting between President Joe Biden and Xi in a year.

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No explanation was given for the couple’s removal, as is customary in the country’s regime. After a vote by China’s top lawmaker, the Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress, it decided to leave Li’s post vacant.

Although Li held the position of Defense Minister, his role was more ceremonial than that of Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin.

“The People’s Liberation Army is not like America. It is not an army under the command of the President. It is the responsibility of the Communist Party leadership,” Neal said.

Nevertheless, the aerospace engineer and army general remained a high-ranking figure in Xi’s government.

Neal said his removal means the U.S. may now finally end direct dialogue with the PLA’s top officials.

Li, who took office in March during a cabinet reshuffle, has not been seen in public since August 29.

A series of reports in Western media, including The Washington Post and The Wall Street Journal, suggested he was under investigation for corruption and was about to be fired.

NBC News has not confirmed these details.

The removal of both from the center of government power virtually ends their political careers. However, little is known about their whereabouts or whether they will be prosecuted.

Li is sanctioned by Washington for his role in China’s 2017 purchase of Russian arms. At the time, China expressed “strong anger” at the move, calling it “unfair” and “a mistake”.

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