Speculation about the missing Chinese Defence Minister General Li Shangfu may have been removed and detained became rife after he was conspicuously absent at the meeting of the Central Military Commission (CMC) in Beijing on Friday.
Regarded as a close confidante of President Xi Jinping, General Li has not been seen in public since early this month, and also had not attended the meeting with senior Vietnamese defence officials on September 7 and 8.
Li is the second high-ranking minister and ruling Communist Party of China (CPC) official to go missing since July this year.
Gen Li was conspicuously missing from the meeting held on Friday of the CMC, the overall high command of the Chinese military headed by President Xi, according to the footage aired on the state broadcaster CCTV, extending an unexplained public absence now in its third week, the Hong Kong-based South China Morning Post reported on Saturday.
Besides his Presidency, 70-year-old Xi, regarded as the most powerful leader after Mao Zedong, heads the CPC and the CMC too.
The Friday meeting discussed the political education of the People's Liberation Army (PLA).
Three of the seven-member Central Military Commission (CMC) He Weidong, the commission's vice-chairman; Admiral Miao Hua, who supervises political affairs, and rocket force General Zhang Shengmin, who is in charge of disciplinary issues, attended the meeting, the Post said.
Also, not in attendance were General Liu Zhenli, the chief of staff of the joint staff department, and General Zhang Youxia, Xi's trusted ally and the first-ranked CMC vice chair.
He, who chaired the meeting, asked the PLA commanders to strengthen their political conviction and step up combat readiness, the Post reported, quoting the official media.
There has been no official explanation for Gen Li's absence.
However, his name still figures as a member of the CMC on the official Chinese Defence Ministry website.
Earlier, Foreign Minister Qin Gang, who was not seen publicly for weeks, prompting speculation of his detention, was replaced by veteran diplomat and Director of CPC's Foreign Affairs Commission Wang Yi in July by a resolution of the Chinese Parliament, the National People's Congress.
While the sudden replacement of the two high-profile ministers sparked rumours of purges at the top of the government and the party, they also puzzled analysts as both Qin and Li were close confidants of Xi and handpicked by him for the top posts.
Gen Li's absence followed a major shakeup in the PLA Rocket (missile) Force in which its commander, Li Yuchao, and political commissar, Xu Zhongbo, were both replaced without any official explanation.
He headed the Rocket Force before he was elevated as a minister.
Gen Li, a Chinese aerospace engineer and General of the People's Liberation Army (PLA) was appointed as Defence Minister even though he was sanctioned by the US in 2018 for the purchase of Russian Sukhoi Su-35 fighter jets and S-400 surface-to-air missiles by China's Equipment Development Department (EDD) in violation of US sanctions on Russia.