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Why was Qin Gang removed and what does it mean for Chinese diplomacy?

Recent actions by China’s officials have only fueled talk about ex-foreign minister’s sudden disappearance

Arpan Rai
Thursday 27 July 2023 12:36 BST
Chinese foreign minister Qin Gang gives a speech as he attends a news conference after talks with his Dutch counterpart Wopke Hoekstra in May this year in Beijing
Chinese foreign minister Qin Gang gives a speech as he attends a news conference after talks with his Dutch counterpart Wopke Hoekstra in May this year in Beijing (Getty Images)

Questions have cropped up about the ouster and whereabouts of China’s foreign minister Qin Gang who has kept out of the public eye for a little more than a month.

Known as one of the country’s “wolf warrior” diplomats, speculation has swirled over the public absence of the 57-year-old close aide of president Xi Jinping, whose sudden removal from the president’s cabinet after barely half a year has caught analysts by surprise.

To add to the chatter about Mr Qin, there have been no clear answers from Beijing’s leadership either, with several questions about him from a daily official briefing being mysteriously scrubbed from the official record.

The Chinese foreign ministry that Mr Qin earlier commanded said the top leader from Mr Xi’s cabinet was off work for health reasons.

The ministry didn’t share further details of his illness, spurring debate about the long-maintained secrecy that has followed the ruling Communist leadership’s top brass and its decision making.

The ouster and Mr Qin’s public no show likely sets the stage for one of the biggest political tumults to strike China in a decade.

It also comes on the heels of a dramatic and unexplained moment from late last year, in which one of the country’s former presidents, Hu Jintao, was ejected from the heavily stage-managed National Congress of the Communist Party.

Mr Qin was last seen on 25 June where he held talks with delegates from Sri Lanka, Russia and Vietnam in Beijing, in what marked his last public appearance.

And just days earlier, he was part of a closely watched five-and-a-half-hour long meeting with US Secretary of State Antony Blinken, followed by a dinner. That meeting was dubbed candid and constructive from both sides.

On 11 July, the foreign ministry said Mr Qin could not attend a meeting in Indonesia for unspecified “health reasons”.

Despite his absence, work at the foreign minister’s office has continued unabated.

On Wednesday, China finally had the opportunity to answer more than 20 questions at a daily briefing on Mr Qin’s unexplained disappearance. But all of them were deflected in carefully worded responses by foreign ministry spokesperson Mao Ning.

On being asked how Mr Qin’s absence affected China’s diplomacy with the US – as his disappearance comes at a critical juncture amid strained bilateral ties between Beijing and Washington – Ms Mao had a cryptic answer.

“China’s diplomacy has been making progress and moving forward in an orderly manner,” she said and sought the next question.

When asked if Mr Qin was subject to a corruption probe, Ms Mao said she didn’t have the required information available with her.

While such briefings rarely issue concrete information on matters critical to the autocratic regime – especially to foreign media – they are generally carefully moderated and verbally recorded for publishing.

Questions of Mr Qin’s absence were completely removed from the record published later in the evening.

The record was also struck to just seven questions from the Chinese state media, fuelling the mystery about one of the tallest ministers China has boasted of recently.

With a long career in diplomacy that started in the early 2000s, Mr Qin became one of China’s youngest foreign ministers after his appointment in December last year.

He also served as the same ministry’s spokesperson and also as its chief protocol officer, coordinating Mr Xi’s various interactions with foreign leaders.

He was also recognised for being one of the first diplomats to speak aggressively in defence of China’s increasingly assertive foreign policy, a style known as “wolf warrior” diplomacy.

His absence and lack of explanation from Beijing has served more questions than answers, said political scientist Ja Ian Chong at the National University of Singapore.

It also underscores the opacity and unpredictability, even arbitrariness in the current political system, he said.

The vacuum of his position in current geopolitical engagements is being filled by his predecessor and top official Wang Yi who will now represent China this week at a national security advisers meeting of the Brics nations in Johannesburg.

Mr Wang will now have to assert his stop gap role in China’s communications with several allies at a time the war in Ukraine is grinding on and ties with the US are fraying.

Mr Qin had visited various countries as foreign minister in his tenure, including several in Africa in January and in Europe in May, where he pushed China’s call for a ceasefire in Ukraine – a tough sell given China has been criticised for not condemning Russia’s invasion.

Analysts said that, as the prominent Chinese face of diplomacy, Mr Wang will likely prioritise stability of US-China ties after months of hostility and keep Mr Xi’s possible visit to the US this November on track.

His efficiency in handling China’s position on cross-strait bilateral ties with Taiwan will also be critical amid presidential elections there in 2024.

The turmoil also speaks about Mr Xi’s place in Chinese leadership and his decision making, wherein he fast tracked Mr Qin from spokesperson, to protocol chief, then ambassador and finally to foreign minister.

“The real issue of the Qin affair is that it showed how poor Xi’s judgment was is in helicoptering Qin to the foreign minister post, and then took so long to act on his removal,” said Steve Tsang, director of the China Institute at the London University School of Oriental and African Studies and a longtime analyst of Chinese leadership dynamics.

“Xi is not losing control, but those in the party who are secretly against Xi must be drawing lessons on Xi’s weaknesses,” he told the Associated Press.

Before Mr Qin became an issue, Mr Xi “showed decisiveness whether he’s right or not”, he said.

“He has not shown that over the Qin affair, which is hugely embarrassing for him.”

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