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Only five weeks ago, China’s foreign minister, Qin Gang, was at the center of an important restoration of high-level diplomacy in U.S.-China relations: He shook hands with Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken in Beijing, and accepted an invitation to visit the United States.
But in a sign of the capriciousness of China’s elite politics, Mr. Qin was abruptly removed as foreign minister on Tuesday after having disappeared from public view for 30 days. The move ended the career of a diplomat who had leaped to the top as one of President Xi Jinping’s most trusted rising stars.
“The suddenness and opacity surrounding Qin’s dismissal demonstrates the volatility that has now become a feature of China’s political system under Xi,” said Jude Blanchette, the holder of the Freeman Chair in China Studies at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.
The official decision that Mr. Qin had been replaced — and his spot taken by the former foreign minister, Wang Yi — capped weeks of speculation about his fate. Early on, the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs claimed that Mr. Qin had health problems. But the brief announcement from the National People’s Congress Standing Committee, a council of China’s legislature that formally appoints senior government officials, did not mention health or any other reasons.
The lack of clarity appears sure to fan speculation among Chinese commentators about the circumstances behind one of the most dramatic falls of a high-flying Chinese official in recent times. His fate has become a huge topic of speculation on social media, with many commentators focusing on his personal life and a potentially compromising relationship while he was an ambassador in the United States.
Whatever the veracity of those theories, Mr. Qin’s downfall is an awkward moment for Mr. Xi, who catapulted Mr. Qin into his powerful role as minister ahead of other older, longer-serving diplomats.
“If people wanted displayed on a wide screen the opacity of the Chinese system, and how that can — even if just temporarily — hobble the execution of policy, then they’ve got a prime example of it here,” Richard McGregor, a senior fellow at the Lowy Institute in Sydney who studies Chinese foreign policy, said in a telephone interview. Still, he added, Mr. Xi was too powerful to suffer much damage from Mr. Qin’s fall.
“If there’s any substance to the rumors, it’s a reminder that in the party system, your private life can be as much subject to regulation as your public duties,” Mr. McGregor said. “Though, in this case, the conduct of an ambassador has national security implications.”
Mr. Qin, 57, was appointed China’s ambassador to Washington in July 2021, and 17 months later was promoted to foreign minister, singling him out as a trusted protégé of Mr. Xi. Later on Tuesday night, China’s foreign ministry removed Mr. Qin’s webpage and details from its website. But there was still no mention there of his replacement, Mr. Wang.
Mr. Qin’s removal is a “sign of Xi’s bad judgment and fallibility,” said Bonnie Glaser, managing director of the Indo-Pacific program at the German Marshall Fund of the United States, who otherwise called the appointment of Mr. Wang a “smart move” that would help stabilize Chinese diplomacy.
In another example of how secretive elite politics has become under Mr. Xi, Communist Party authorities announced this week that Lt. Gen. Wang Shaojun, a former head of the Central Security Bureau that guards Chinese leaders, had died three months earlier. There was no explanation for the delay in announcing his death.
Mr. Qin’s successor, Mr. Wang, appears to be a safe pair of hands after the back-room drama of the past month. Mr. Wang, 69, is a senior diplomat who is also the director of the Chinese Communist Party’s Foreign Affairs Commission Office, making him a primary policy adviser of Mr. Xi. He is also a member of the Politburo, the council of China’s 24 most senior officials.
Mr. Wang was the foreign minister up to Mr. Qin’s appointment in late last year, and Mr. Wang’s return to that post is unlikely to much change the direction of Chinese policy toward the United States, which is set by Mr. Xi. But Mr. Wang has a recent history of fractious meetings with Biden administration officials that may complicate his task of trying to ease tensions. Mr. Wang and Mr. Blinken held a contentious meeting at a security conference in Munich in February following the downing of a Chinese surveillance balloon by American warplanes over the United States.
China’s leadership “seems to have judged that the situation is severe enough at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs that they did not think they could trust anyone who’s already there to take the job,” said Christopher K. Johnson, the president of the China Strategies Group and a former Central Intelligence Agency analyst of Chinese politics. “We have seen this pattern before with major cases where a Politburo member is brought in to steady the ship and purge the Augean Stables. I presume that’s what Wang will be tasked to do.”
American officials who were present during Mr. Qin’s seven hours of meetings and dinner with Mr. Blinken at the Diaoyutai State Guesthouse in Beijing on June 18 did not notice anything amiss at the time. U.S. officials say it would have been strange for Mr. Xi to have Mr. Qin meet with Mr. Blinken if senior Chinese officials already had a notion at the time of brewing troubles, so the immediate precipitating events of Mr. Qin’s downfall might have begun sometime later in June.
Publicly, Mr. Qin appeared to be unrelentingly loyal to Mr. Xi. Earlier, Mr. Qin served as a foreign ministry spokesman, a diplomat in London and as a protocol officer, a job that brought him close to Mr. Xi on foreign trips. Mr. Qin graduated from the University of International Relations, a school in Beijing linked to China’s security service, and worked as an assistant in the Beijing bureau of United Press International before joining the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in 1992.
As foreign minister since late 2022, Mr. Qin was at the forefront of efforts to pull China out of Covid-era diplomatic isolation, and to try to ease tensions with the United States and other Western countries. But he was also a combative exponent of Mr. Xi’s vision of China as a confident world power, impatient with criticism from other governments, and rarely missed an opportunity to exalt Mr. Xi.
“The human race once again stands at the crossroads of history,” Mr. Qin told a news conference in Beijing in March. “President Xi Jinping has pointed out the right path for global governance from the high ground of the world, history and humankind.”
As a protocol officer for Mr. Xi, Mr. Qin was exhaustively punctilious, said Pavel Slunkin, who was a Belarusian diplomat involved in arranging a visit by Mr. Xi to Belarus in 2015. During the visit, Mr. Slunkin said, Mr. Qin called at around 2 a.m. and asked to immediately go to a museum that Mr. Xi was scheduled to visit, so Mr. Qin could recheck every detail of the plans, including exactly when the music would strike up as Mr. Xi walked up some stairs.
“His subordinates and the embassy’s staff were afraid to approach him. So the communication with him was strictly hierarchical,” Mr. Slunkin, now a visiting fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations, said of Mr. Qin in emailed answers to questions. Mr. Qin, he said, “obviously enjoyed his special position being close to the body — to Xi.”
Keith Bradsher and Edward Wong contributed reporting.
Posted on 25 Jul 2023 20:51 link