Still no sign of Qin Gang as China says foreign minister has been replaced

Still no sign of Qin Gang as China says foreign minister has been replaced

Still no sign of Qin Gang as China says foreign minister has been replaced


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


China’s foreign minister, Qin Gang, who has not been seen in public for almost a month amid a mysterious absence, has been removed from office and replaced by his predecessor, Wang Yi, China’s top legislative body has announced.


The sudden calling of a special meeting Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress (NPCSC) with one day’s notice, had fuelled speculation there may be answers about the disappearance of Qin, who was last seen in public almost a month ago.


Authorities have not disclosed where or why the 57-year-old – a former protege of Xi Jinping - has gone, after early comments that he was absent for health reasons.


The body said Qin had been removed from his post, without specifying why, and Wang, who is a more senior party member to Qin and China’s most senior diplomat, reinstated as a minister in his place.


Shortly after the announcement references to Qin’s work as foreign minister were being removed from government websites.


The former ambassador to the US, who also served as Xi’s close aide, had experienced a meteoric rise outside the usual norms of Chinese Communist party progression, making a name for himself as one of Beijing’s self-styled “wolf warrior” diplomats. It culminated in him being promoted to the post of foreign minster at the expense of more senior cadres in December last year.


Qin’s removal renders his seven-month term as China’s foreign minister the shortest ever. He will remain on the State Council, China’s top administrative body, but without a specific portfolio and it is not clear what, if any, his role in China’s foreign policy will be in future.


Patricia Thornton, a professor of Chinese politics at the University of Oxford, said the fact Qin remained on the state council suggested there was an ongoing investigation “but sufficient concern to remove him as foreign minister”.


Qin’s last public appearance was a meeting with the Sri Lankan foreign minister in Beijing on 25 June. He was not seen during this month’s visit to Beijing by the US treasury secretary, Janet Yellen, or during a subsequent trip to China by the US climate envoy, John Kerry.


In June, Qin held talks lasting more than seven hours with US secretary of state, Antony Blinken, in a trip that was meant to break the ice of frosty US-China relations.


Qin was replaced as the head of the Chinese delegation to the Asean summit in Indonesia this month. At the time, the foreign ministry spokesperson, Wang Wenbin, would say only that Qin was not attending “due to health reasons”. Questions since put to the ministry, about Qin’s wellbeing and whereabouts, went unanswered. Some comments and media references to his disappearance were also censored or removed from Chinese social media, and media outlets including the Hong Kong-based South China Morning Post.


Rumours about the reason behind Qin’s disappearance have included a power struggle with Wang Yi, and an alleged affair with a TV anchor.


Wen-ti Sung, a political scientist at ANU’s Australian Centre on China in the World, said the return of Wang as foreign minister “smells like a temporary arrangement to end further embarrassment” for Xi.


At 69, he is already past the standard retirement age for cabinet officials and is staying on the ruling Politburo committee. Sung said this suggested Wang was only a placeholder before a permanent replacement was announced, which could further compromise China’s international outreach.


“That Wang Yi’s appointment as foreign minister may be a transitional arrangement means uncertainty around China’s frontline foreign policy implementer remains,” he said.


He added it was unclear what was happening with Qin, but allowing him to stay on the state council suggested he retained some political protection. “[It] may be a signal that Qin Gang may be professionally over but he is not politically dead yet.”


Many observers have grown sceptical of the health reasons offered as explanation for his disappearance – it has been used before to explain absences of senior officials and public figures who have fallen out of favour, and there appeared to be little reason not to confirm it on Tuesday.


“The lack of an explanation opens more questions than provides answers,” Ja Ian Chong, associate professor of political science at National University of Singapore, told Reuters.


“Developments surrounding Qin suggests that no one is indispensable. It also underscores the opacity and unpredictability, even arbitrariness in the current political system.”


Joseph Torigian, assistant professor at the America University’s School of International Service, said the move bought the leadership time to complete an investigation and decide whether to give Qin a “hard or soft landing”.


“Or, allow his health to improve if that really is what’s going on.”


The Tuesday evening announcement gave no reasons for Qin’s removal, but had clearly been called in haste. It also formally announced the promotion of Pan Gongsheng from deputy head of the People’s Bank of China to become governor of the central bank.


The Standing Committee is a 175-member body that usually meets every two months and is the de facto top legislative body, except for when the full National People’s Congress sits once a year. This week’s meeting was outside the regular timetable, with the next meeting expected in August.


The meeting agenda had included only two items – a non-urgent amendment to the criminal law and “a decision on official appointments and removal”.


Changhao Wei, a Paul Tsai China Center fellow and an associate research scholar at Yale Law School, said irregular meetings were uncommon but not rare, and in the past they had lasted for as little as a day because there were few items on the agenda.


“What’s extraordinary about today’s session is that it was scheduled only a day earlier. Based on publicly available information, that likely hasn’t happened in at least a decade,” Wei said.


Speaking from Tonga on Wednesday, Blinken commented on the abrupt removal of Qin. “I wish him well,” Blinken said, while vowing to work with his replacement.


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


Blinken said it was China’s “sovereign decision” to remove Qin.


Davidson, H. (2023, July 26). Still no sign of Qin Gang as China says foreign minister has been replaced. The Guardian.

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