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From developers to defense leaders, China’s disappearing elite

View of a signboard of Evergrande Group in Ji'nan city, east China's Shandong province.

View of a signboard of Evergrande Group in Ji'nan city, east China's Shandong province.


Why do Chinese officials keep vanishing? On Saturday, several executives of the beleaguered property developer Evergrande Group were arrested in the southern city of Shenzhen, where the conglomerate is headquartered. It is unclear how many persons were detained, or their names or titles, though a statement by local police referenced one individual named “Du.” There is speculation that this individual is Du Liang, who in 2021 was listed as head of Evergrande’s wealth management unit.

Evergrande made headlines in Aug. 2023 when it filed for US bankruptcy protection, and is currently undergoing a restructuring plan for its $340 billion debt. On Friday, China’s national financial regulator announced it had approved the takeover of Evergrande’s life insurance business by a new state-owned entity.

These arrests come on the heels of the disappearance two weeks ago of China’s defense minister, Li Shangfu. According to US officials, Li is under investigation for corruption along with eight senior officials who worked in a military procurement unit that he led from 2017 to 2022. Beijing, however, is staying mum: On Friday, a Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman said she was “not aware” of the situation.

These incidents, as well as the recent removal of Qin Gang as Chinese foreign minister and a shake-up at the top of the country’s nuclear forces, have led to speculation that President Xi Jinping is conducting a purge within China’s defense apparatus. If so, it remains to be seen whether that reflects squabbling within the Chinese elite, a more general consolidation of Xi’s power, or a house-cleaning ahead of some big move by the Chinese president. But a wave of disappearing acts at the top of the world’s second largest economy are not a good sign.


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