Former Chinese defence minister Wei Fenghe emerges after months of speculation

A floral tribute at the funeral of a senior official on Monday suggests China’s former defence chief and rocket army veteran Wei Fenghe may be politically safe, after his absence from state events sparked months of speculation about his fate.

Wei’s name was spotted on a wreath at the funeral of Oyunqemag, 81, who served as vice-chairwoman of the National People’s Congress Standing Committee from 2008-2013.

In a prime time news bulletin on state broadcaster CCTV, Wei’s tribute was visible among those from other former state councillors at the side of the funeral hall, with wreaths from President Xi Jinping and other incumbent officials in the middle.

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Wei, who headed the Rocket Force from its formation in 2015 as part of Xi’s military overhaul, disappeared from the public eye after his successor Li Shangfu was abruptly sacked from the defence minister role in October last year, without explanation.

Li, who like Wei spent most of his career in the PLA’s rocket army, was also stripped of his rank as a state councillor and removed from top decision-making body the Central Military Commission (CMC).

Wei’s indirect reappearance indicates he may have escaped the purge of the PLA’s top brass, including commanders of the Rocket Force – which manages China’s nuclear arsenal – that followed Li’s disgrace.

Direct and indirect appearances in official settings are important indicators of political fate in China’s opaque system, where little information is given away.

Wei’s absence from an official National Day reception last year was the first sign that he may be in trouble. He was also not included in a list of around 130 retired senior officials who received Lunar New Year greetings from the party leadership in February.

The annual formality is usually reserved for retired senior officials who have achieved state councillor rank or above.

His predecessors – former defence ministers Chang Wanquan, Liang Guanglie, Cao Gangchuan and Chi Haotian – all featured in the list released by state news agency Xinhua.

The PLA purge included Zhou Yaning and Li Yuchao, the Rocket Force commanders who succeeded Wei after his promotion to defence minister in 2018, a position he held until his retirement in 2023.

China removes 9 PLA generals from top legislature in sign of wider purge

Both men were removed from positions in China’s top legislative body the National People’s Congress in November, along with seven senior PLA officers, including two of their deputies and a head of the Rocket Force’s equipment development programme.

The NPC Standing Committee confirmed that all nine were involved in corruption investigations in its first communique of 2024, released in February.

The PLA is yet to fully iron out the aftermath of the purges. Current defence minister Dong Jun – who took over from Li in December and is the first navy chief in the role – has yet to be named as a state councillor, or given a place on the CMC.

All previous defence ministers have received the political status of membership on the CMC, which is chaired by Xi.

The military has been one of the main targets of Xi’s far-reaching anti-corruption campaign. Two of the most prominent to fall were Guo Boxiong and Xu Caihou, both former CMC vice-chairmen. Guo was jailed for life for bribery in 2016. Xu died of cancer in 2015 while facing court martial.

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