China's Communist Party expels two former defence ministers for corruption

By Laurie Chen

BEIJING (Reuters) - China's Communist Party on Thursday expelled former defence minister Li Shangfu and his predecessor Wei Fenghe for "serious violations of discipline", a euphemism for corruption, state news agency Xinhua reported.

Li was suspected of receiving "huge sums of money" in bribes as well as bribing others, and an investigation found he "did not fulfill political responsibilities" and "sought personnel benefits for himself and others", the report said, citing the Communist Party's Central Committee which ordered the investigation.

"As a senior leading cadre of the party and the army, Li Shangfu betrayed his original mission ... betrayed the trust of the Party Central Committee and Central Military Commission... and caused great damage to the party cause and national defence," the report said.

Reuters exclusively reported last year that Li was under investigation for suspected corruption in military procurement. He was mysteriously ousted as defence minister without explanation last October, after disappearing for two months. This is the first time China has explicitly confirmed that Li was under investigation, as well as details of the nature of his crimes.

China's military has undergone a sweeping anti-corruption purge since last year, with eleven PLA generals and a handful of aerospace defence industry executives removed from the national legislative body to date.

Wei Fenghe, Li's predecessor, had disappeared from public view since he was replaced last March during a planned cabinet reshuffle. Wei was head of the strategic People's Liberation Army (PLA) Rocket Force from 2015-17.

President Xi Jinping, also the military's commander-in-chief, appointed a new head and political commissar of the Rocket Force last July, in a major shake-up of the unit that oversees China's conventional and nuclear missiles.

An investigation launched into Wei last September found that he had accepted "a huge amount of money and valuables" in bribes and "helped others gain improper benefits in personnel arrangements", Xinhua reported, adding that his actions were "extremely serious in nature, with a highly detrimental impact and tremendous harm".

Both officials were also found to have other unspecified violations, the reports said without elaborating.

The decisions to strip Li and Wei of their party membership were approved by the seven-member Politburo, the Communist Party's apex of power, on Thursday. The Politburo also transferred both their cases to military prosecutors.

The decision will be confirmed during the party's Third Plenum to be held 15-18 July, when removals from the Central Committee will be formally announced. Ousted former foreign minister Qin Gang still remains a member of the Central Committee.

Xi last week said the PLA faces "deep-seated" political problems and vowed there must be "no hiding place" for corrupt officers.

Li was also stripped of his membership of the national legislative body, Xinhua added, after being removed from the Central Military Commission, China's top military body, earlier this year. Wei was also removed from the legislative body.

(Reporting by Beijing newsroom and Laurie Chen; Editing by Christina Fincher)