China removes its foreign minister from power

Chris Taylor for RFA
China removes its foreign minister from power Chinese Foreign Minister Qin Gang (front right) walks next to Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Andrei Rudenko in Beijing, June 25, 2023.
Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the People’s Republic of China via AP

China’s rubber-stamp parliament removed Foreign Minister Qin Gang from power on Tuesday after his unexplained absence from public view during the past month fueled intense speculation and online rumors.

Wang Yi, who outranks Qin and serves as President Xi Jinping’s top foreign policy aide, was reinstated as foreign minister, according to a short statement made on CCTV, the Chinese state broadcaster. He previously served in the role from 2013 to December 2022.

Qin’s ouster as foreign minister took place amid heightened tensions between China and the United States, its rival superpower, over Taiwan and the territorially contested South China Sea. 

The announcement followed a hastily convened session of China’s Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress, or NPCSC, to discuss unspecified personnel matters, or “bills of appointments and removals.”

Replacing the 57-year-old Qin as foreign minister required NPCSC action. He was last seen in public during a meeting of senior diplomats from Russia, Vietnam and Sri Lanka on June 25.

Qin is presumed to be under liuzhi – retention in custody – a regulated and “legalized” system for disappearances and holding of Chinese Communist Party members, state functionaries, those within academia, state-owned enterprises or state-media, local contractors, or anyone related to any of the above.

“I think he is gone,” Willy Wo-Lap Lam, a senior fellow at the Jamestown Foundation and expert on Chinese politics, told the Sydney Morning Herald. “His career is finished. There is no way that he will be allowed to resume his position.”

Qin, China’s ambassador to the United States before his ascension to the foreign minister role in December, had developed personal relationships with his foreign counterparts that will have to be rebuilt. 

There will also be the complex issue of whom his friends and allies are within the Foreign Ministry, with some, or all of them, likely being required to step aside. That could lead to bureaucratic friction and delays to key foreign ministry tasks.

Heading the list of the latter are a possible Xi-Biden November summit.

Whatever the reasons for Qin’s dismissal – and rumors will likely continue to circulate – disruptions to China’s diplomatic exchanges are expected to continue. Recently, the British foreign minister and the European Union’s top diplomat both shelved their scheduled visits to China.

Palace whispers

China’s foreign ministry spokesperson initially cited “health reasons” to explain Qin’s disappearance from the public eye, but rumors of an affair with a celebrity TV broadcaster have circulated on Chinese social media.

Beijing is more than ever a city of palace whispers. The upper echelons of CCP power are opaque to outsiders, but when its movers and shakers make a wrong move, they can disappear only to reappear later facing charges of corruption or immorality. There’s usually no recovery from a fall from grace.

Since 2018, more than 57,000 people are believed to have disappeared under the liuzhi system. Examples, according to watchdog Safeguard Defenders, include actress Fan Bingbing, Supreme Court judge Wang Linqing, former Chairman of Interpol Meng Hongwei, possibly internet mogul Jack Ma, as well as numerous foreign citizens, including Canadian diplomat Michael Kovrig. 

A personal favorite of Xi, Qin’s ascent was remarkably rapid by Chinese standards. Now it has come to a close. He rose from the role of ambassador of the U.S. to foreign minister in only 17 months.

“Qin Gang was single-handedly pulled up the ranks by Xi. Any problems with him will reflect badly on Xi too – implying that Xi failed to choose the right person for the job,” Deng Yuwen, a former editor of a Communist Party newspaper who now lives in the U.S., told CNN.

Qin’s travails

A Washington Post opinion piece on Tuesday speculated that Qin “likely fell victim to infighting inside China’s top leadership clique, which is notoriously fratricidal.”

“Qin has a huge number of enemies inside the government,” one senior U.S. official told Josh Rogin of the Post. “He was a marginally talented person, who, just through being close with Xi, catapulted up.”

It’s widely known that Qin’s rapid ascent was due to his personal relations with Xi, which are said to have bloomed after Qin’s wife gave Xi’s wife a gift of homemade mooncakes.

His rise was so meteoric, it’s rumored that many in the inner sanctum of party politics are jealous, and the 69-year-old man who now has his job, Wang Yi, is said to be his chief rival.

Qin struggled as Beijing’s envoy to Washington from July 2021 to January 2023. The Biden administration interacted with him seldom, pegging him as a “wolf warrior” diplomat with no interest in stabilizing relations.

While he was granted occasional meetings with White House and State Department officials, he had almost no engagement with cabinet secretaries and struggled to establish contacts on Capitol Hill.

One diplomat described Qin as “shut out” in Washington partly as retaliation for the lack of access given to U.S. ambassador to China Nicholas Burns.

When asked during a press briefing to comment on Qin’s removal as foreign minister, a State Department official in Washington replied, “It is up to China to decide who their foreign minister is.” 

“As you know, Secretary Blinken has met with Wang Yi on multiple occasions, including on his most recent trip to Jakarta as well as while he visited Beijing prior to that,” Principal Deputy Spokesperson Vedant Patel told reporters on Tuesday.  

“We will continue to engage with Foreign Minister Wang Yi and other Chinese officials, and we continue to believe that keeping lines of communications [is] incredibly important. And it’s an important avenue to manage this relationship responsibly, which is something that the international community expects of us.”  

This report was produced by Radio Free Asia (RFA), a news service affiliated with BenarNews.


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