China replaces foreign minister Qin Gang – who hasn’t been seen in public for weeks

Beijing announces former US ambassador has been removed from office as speculation swirls about his whereabouts

Yew Lun Tian
Wednesday 26 July 2023 13:09 BST
Qin Gang at a press conference in May
Qin Gang at a press conference in May (AP)

China has removed Qin Gang as foreign minister barely half a year into the job – with the official having not been seen in public for weeks.

Mr Qin, 57, a former aide to Xi Jinping, who had been seen as a close friend of the president, took over the ministry in December but has disappeared from public view since he met visiting diplomats in Beijing on 25 June. A meeting with the European Union foreign policy chief, Josep Borrell, originally set for 4 July was then pushed back with no explanation.

The Foreign Ministry said on 11 July that Mr Qin was unable to attend a meeting in Indonesia for unspecified “health reasons”. It declined any further comment on his status, creating an information vacuum in which rumours swirled about his personal life.

Last week, a spokesperson for the ministry offered no information when asked about the whereabouts of Mr Qin – highlighting the secrecy often surrounding China’s Communist leadership and decision making.

Veteran diplomat Wang Yi was named the new foreign minister on Tuesday. Mr Wang, 69, was also Mr Qin’s predecessor, holding the post for a number of years as ties frayed with rival superpower the United States to a point Beijing has described as an all-time low.

State media did not report why Mr Qin was removed from office and China’s foreign ministry did not respond to a request for comment. Mr Xi signed a presidential order to make the decision effective, state news agency Xinhua reported.

“The lack of an explanation opens more questions than provides answers,” said Ja Ian Chong, associate professor of political science at National University of Singapore. “It also underscores the opacity and unpredictability, even arbitrariness in the current political system.”

It is not the first time there has been an unexplained absence of officials in China. Industry minister Xiao Yaqing disappeared from public view for nearly a month last year before it was revealed he was being investigated for corruption

Mr Qin was one of China’s youngest foreign ministers, enjoying a meteoric ascent that analysts partly attributed to his closeness to Xi. He was twice foreign ministry spokesperson, between 2006 to 2014, and chief protocol officer from 2014 to 2018, overseeing many of Mr Xi’s contacts with foreign leaders. He headed to Washington as ambassador in July 2021.

Mr Wang was promoted to the politburo of the Chinese Communist Party, one of China’s top leadership bodies. He retakes the foreign ministry post as China seeks to re-engage with the world after years of Covid-induced isolation, as a mooted economic recovery fails to gain hold and the country spars with the United States over issues from Ukraine, Russia and Taiwan to trade and technology disputes.

“The choice of Wang Yi is rational,” said Yun Sun, director of the China programme at the Stimson Center in Washington. “To convey a sense of stability and credibility, China needs to select someone who is senior [and] authoritative,” she said.

Hours after news of his appointment broke, Pakistan’s foreign minister Bilawal Bhutto Zardari tweeted his congratulations, saying Mr Wang was “an astute and seasoned diplomat”.

As for Mr Qin’s political future, that remains unclear, say analysts, who point out that there has not yet been any clarity over whether he will still hold his role as state councillor, a member of China's cabinet.

“His fate is left hanging and is a glaring reminder of the opacity of the Chinese political system,” said Dali Yang, a political science professor at the University of Chicago.


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