China’s foreign minister removed from power

Qin Gang’s month-long absence has been mysteriously unexplained by Chinese officials.
By Chris Taylor for RFA
China’s foreign minister removed from power Chinese Foreign Minister Qin Gang holds a book of China’s Constitution during a news conference on the sidelines of the National People's Congress in Beijing on March 7, 2023.
REUTERS/Thomas Peter

UPDATED at 07:27 p.m. ET on 2023-07-25

China’s rubber-stamp parliament on Tuesday removed Foreign Minister Qin Gang from power after his unexplained month-long absence from public view sparked 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 China’s state broadcaster, CCTV. He previously served in the role from 2013 to December 2022.

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 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.”

China’s Foreign Minister Qin Gang, front right, walks next to Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Andrei Rudenko, left, in Beijing, on June 25, 2023. (Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the People's Republic of China via AP)

The fact that the decision has been a month in the making is a sign of how serious the move is.

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 swirl – disruptions to China’s diplomatic exchanges are expected to continue. Recently, the British foreign minister and EU’s top diplomat have 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, the 57-year-old 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 just 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 Phoenix.png
Chinese Foreign Minister Qin Gang is interviewed by Phoenix TV anchor Fu Xiaotian in March 2022. Credit: Screenshot from YouTube video

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.

Reacting to the news of Qin’s removal Tuesday, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken said the move was China’s “sovereign decision,” adding that he had “constructive conversations” with his former Chinese counterpart and wished him well, the AFP news agency reported.

Blinken said he expected to “work well” with Qin’s replacement, Wang Yi.

"It is important for us to manage this relationship responsibly,” Blinken said. “That starts with diplomacy, that starts with engaging, and I will work with whoever the relevant Chinese counterpart is."

Updated to add Blinken reaction.


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Jul 25, 2023 02:43 PM

Looks like Qin Gang upset Boss Xi. Never a good policy in a dictatorship like the CCP. The perennial problem w/ dictatorships is you never want to give the boss bad news because it can result in your removal, jail or worse. And when you finally get a leading post in the govt, you always have to watch out for rivals who want your job or post and will talk bad about you to the boss. Watch your back, you fellow party members are coming for you. I want cry any tears for a corrupt servant of an evil empire.