A mere five weeks ago, China’s Foreign Minister, Qin Gang, had played a pivotal role in revitalizing high-level diplomacy between the U.S. and China, even accepting an invitation to visit the United States after a handshake with Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken in Beijing.
However, demonstrating the unpredictable nature of China’s elite political landscape, Mr. Qin was abruptly displaced as Foreign Minister on Tuesday following a month-long absence from public appearances. This action signaled the abrupt end to the career trajectory of a diplomat who had rapidly risen to the top echelons as a close confidante of President Xi Jinping.
The Freeman Chair in China Studies, Jude Blanchette, at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, observed that the abruptness and lack of transparency surrounding Qin’s dismissal underscore the unpredictability of China’s political apparatus under Xi’s leadership.
Mr. Qin’s sudden replacement by former Foreign Minister Wang Yi confirmed weeks of conjecture about his destiny. Initially, the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs attributed Mr. Qin’s absence to health issues. However, the terse announcement from the National People’s Congress Standing Committee, China’s legislative body in charge of appointing senior government officials, omitted any mention of health or other reasons.
The absence of definitive reasons is bound to stoke further speculation among Chinese pundits concerning the details behind one of a high-ranking Chinese official’s most remarkable recent downturns. The focus of speculation during his tenure has been on social media and has primarily been on his potential compromising relationships and personal life as ambassador to the United States.
Regardless of the validity of these conjectures, Mr. Qin’s fall presents an uncomfortable situation for Mr. Xi, who had propelled Mr. Qin to his influential ministerial position over other seasoned diplomats.
During a phone interview, Richard McGregor, specializing in Chinese foreign policy, observed, “If people sought a blatant demonstration of the Chinese system’s obscurity and its ability to disrupt policy implementation, they have an exemplary case in this situation.” Nevertheless, he added that Mr. Xi is too potent to be significantly affected by Mr. Qin’s downfall.
McGregor noted, “If the rumors hold any truth, it’s a signal that your private life in the party system can be as subject to regulation as your public responsibilities.” He added that, in this instance, the actions of an ambassador carry national security implications.
Mr. Qin, aged 57, was appointed China’s ambassador to Washington in July 2021. Within 17 months, he ascended to the position of Foreign Minister, marking him as a trusted protégé of Mr. Xi. His page and information were removed from China’s Foreign Ministry website on Tuesday night without mentioning his replacement, Mr. Wang.