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25 July 2023

How China’s foreign minister Qin Gang disappeared into the political void 

After going missing for a month, Qin Gang has been removed as foreign minister. His rapid rise and sudden downfall shows the pathologies of China’s political system under Xi Jinping.

By Katie Stallard

Editor’s note: This piece was updated on 25 July to reflect the announcement by China’s state news agency Xinhua that Qin Gang had been removed from office and replaced by his predecessor Wang Yi.

Within days of being appointed China’s foreign minister in December, Qin Gang had embarked on a week-long tour of Africa. The career diplomat, who had previously served as ambassador to the US and was known as a shrewd political operator who could be both charming and combative, adopted a hectic schedule. He jetted around the world pressing China’s interests as one of the country’s most prominent envoys, and appeared to be a rising star. But then Qin disappeared.  

The 57-year-old was last seen in public on 25 June, when he held meetings with diplomats from Russia, Vietnam and Sri Lanka in Beijing. Ten days later, on 5 July, the foreign ministry abruptly cancelled a planned visit by the European Union’s foreign policy chief Josep Borrell, who had been scheduled to hold talks with Qin, without providing an explanation.  

On 11 July, foreign ministry spokesperson Wang Wenbin said Qin would not attend a summit of south-east Asian countries in Jakarta because of “health reasons”, but his comment was omitted from the official transcript of the press conference. When reporters in Beijing asked another foreign ministry spokesperson, Mao Ning, about Qin’s whereabouts on 17 July, she said she had “no information to provide”. Again, the exchange was left out of the official record.  

Qin’s sudden absence was noted in China, where internet searches for “Qin Gang” on Baidu, the country’s most popular search engine, have spiked. By 20 July, there were reportedly 380,000 searches a day for news of the missing foreign minister. Foreign diplomats and US officials alike joined the guessing game around what had happened to a man who was previously seen as a trusted aide of the Chinese leader Xi Jinping.

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“There’s something everyone is talking about but can’t be talked about publicly,” commented Hu Xijin, the former editor of the nationalist tabloid Global Times, on the social media platform Weibo. “There needs to be a balance between keeping the operations running and respecting the public’s right to information.” 

The void of official information has been filled with wild rumours, which the Chinese foreign ministry has done nothing to quash. The most salacious theory is that Qin, who is married with a son according to his official biography, was embroiled in an affair with the glamorous Hong Kong-based television presenter Fu Xiaotian.  

The evidence to support allegations of an affair is circumstantial at best. Fu, 40, who was educated at Cambridge and is best known for her interview series Talk with World Leaders on the state-controlled channel Phoenix TV, interviewed Qin during his time as ambassador in Washington in March 2022. Later that year, she gave birth to a son. Internet sleuths and media outlets have since poured over her social media posts, looking for concealed references to Qin, although without uncovering any definitive proof of a relationship between the two. They point to a Twitter post by Fu on 10 April, which featured a triptych of images: a private jet waiting on the tarmac at night, a still frame from her interview with Qin, and a photograph that showed her holding her infant son, Er-Kin. She has posted nothing since.  

Qin made a name for himself as an acerbic spokesman for the Chinese foreign ministry, where he served twice in the role between 2005 and 2014, but he owed his vertiginous ascent through the diplomatic ranks to his relationship with Xi. As I wrote in a profile of Qin earlier this year, he embarked on a career in diplomacy straight out of school, studying at the foreign ministry-affiliated Institute of International Relations and joining the diplomatic service in 1988 at the age of 22. He was assigned to the department of West European Affairs in 1992 and posted three times to the UK embassy over the two decades that followed, which he once said was like winning the lottery.  

[See also: Resolving US-China tensions needs more than just superpower diplomacy]

After Xi took over as general secretary in 2012, Qin, who was then back in his role as foreign ministry spokesman, embodied the “fighting spirit” the new leader demanded from his diplomats. He was promoted to head the protocol department in 2014. This meant he was closely involved in coordinating Xi’s meetings with foreign leaders and accompanied the leader on his visits overseas. He was promoted again to become vice-minister of foreign affairs in 2018 and then named ambassador to the US in 2021, where he served for less than two years before he was appointed foreign minister in December 2022 – one of the youngest people ever to hold the role.  

While some commentators labelled him a “wolf warrior” – a reference to a jingoistic Chinese action-movie franchise – and he could be abrasive in his dealings with foreign journalists and diplomats, Qin pushed back against the depiction, insisting he was merely defending China from “jackals and wolves”. But Qin’s growing public profile and rapid ascent through the Chinese bureaucracy may also have stirred resentment among his political rivals. As one US official told the Washington Post after his disappearance, “Qin has a huge number of enemies inside the government. He was a marginally talented person, who, just through being close with Xi, catapulted up.”

During the early weeks of Qin’s absence it was, of course, always possible that there was a perfectly banal explanation that involved neither an illicit liaison nor political infighting among the Communist Party elite – or any of the other conspiracy theories that have circulated online. Perhaps, US officials had whispered, the foreign minister had suffered a serious health crisis, such as a severe case of Covid-19. The health of senior officials is a closely guarded secret at the best of times, but such an incident would be especially difficult for the government to admit when the official narrative is that Xi’s “zero-Covid” policy has been a national triumph and the virus’ spread is under control.

Surely, one might think, if Qin’s health was really the issue, then a photograph could have been staged – or at least a brief statement issued – to show that he was recuperating from a politically palatable condition. There is no shame, after all, in working yourself to exhaustion on behalf of the party and the Chinese people. At a time when Chinese diplomats are dealing with multiple challenging issues, not least navigating the fallout from the war in Ukraine and re-establishing high-level communications with the US, it might seem logical that the country’s leadership would want to clear up the mystery surrounding the whereabouts of the foreign minister.

But this is not how China’s political system works. Whereas Winston Churchill once compared the experience of attempting to observe Russian power struggles to watching two bulldogs fighting under a carpet, in the Chinese case we rarely even see the carpet move. At the most, one or more of the protagonists might disappear for a period of weeks or months. Then they will either quietly return to their role or be hauled up on corruption charges and sent to prison and obscurity – the party’s preferred mechanism for dealing with those who have fallen from grace.

The trend towards absolutely secrecy has only intensified during Xi’s first decade in power. He shows no inclination to explain his decision-making to those working within the system, much less those observers trying to make sense of it from beyond. It is wholly feasible that Qin’s junior colleagues at the foreign ministry genuinely do not know the details of what has befallen him. Confronted with questions from reporters, it was far safer to say nothing until they received clear instructions, and it was clear which of the bulldogs had prevailed.

One month to the day of his last public engagements, China’s state news agency Xinhua announced that Qin had been removed from his post as foreign minister and replaced by his predecessor Wang Yi. The statement provided no further details or explanation for Qin’s removal. Perhaps we will learn more in the days and weeks to come about the official reasons for his apparent downfall, but it is unlikely we will ever know the truth of what really happened.

[See also: The world according to Xi Jinping and Vladimir Putin]

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