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China Replaces Foreign Minister After Mysterious Absence

China Replaces Foreign Minister After Mysterious Absence
BEIJING, CHINA - MARCH 26: Chinese Foreign Minister Qin Gang speaks during the ceremony of establishment of diplomatic relations between the two countries at Diaoyutai State Guesthouse on March 26, 2023 in Beijing, China. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Honduras issued a statement on March 25th, officially announcing that it would sever diplomatic relations with Taiwan, China. (Photo by Lintao Zhang/Getty Images) Photographer: Lintao Zhang/Getty Images AsiaPac

China removed Qin Gang as foreign minister just seven months into the job, marking the shortest-ever tenure for the role after the diplomat mysteriously disappeared from public view in June.

The former envoy will be replaced by his predecessor Wang Yi, state media reported, without giving an explanation for the abrupt personnel change. The nation’s top legislative body made the announcement at a snap meeting Tuesday.

The report didn’t directly mention whether Qin retained his state councilor title, a more senior position. The meeting comes a day after Xi Jinping gathered his top decision-making Politburo to discuss economic policy and “other issues,” according to that meeting’s readout.

Wang Yi
Wang Yi  Photographer: Andre Malerba/Bloomberg

While Qin’s unseating ends speculation over his official status after he dropped from public view for a month, it does little to answer more fundamental questions over the reason for the absence of an official considered one of President Xi Jinping’s handpicked ministers.

Asked about the change, Vedant Patel, a US State Department spokesman said “it is up to China to decide who their foreign minister is.” He added that Secretary of State Antony Blinken has met with Wang repeatedly, including in Jakarta and Beijing.

Read more: China’s New Foreign Minister Is No Newcomer for US Counterparts

China’s foreign ministry has declined to comment on Qin’s status in recent weeks. After initially saying the former Chinese ambassador to the US was suffering from a “physical condition,” it has referred reporters back to its website where Qin was listed. After the announcement on Tuesday the page where Qin’s formal titles were stated said it was updating.

Read More About Qin Gang:

State media has avoided Qin’s name since his last public appearance on June 25 and references to him have been wiped from foreign ministry briefing readouts, fueling speculation he’d fallen from grace.

“We have these occasional moments that remind us just how little we know about Chinese politics,” said Joseph Torigian, an assistant professor at the American University. “I didn’t see a single rumor that Wang Yi would take over.”

The information vacuum around Qin comes as investors raise concerns that data gaps and policy volatility are making the world’s second-largest economy a harder place to do business, particularly as China’s post-pandemic recovery splutters.

Rising Star

Qin’s absence could simply be down to a illness. China is notoriously guarded about the health status of its leaders, with Xi being the last Group of Twenty leader to reveal his vaccination status during the Covid-19 pandemic.

The surprise decision to reinstate Wang, rather than elevate a vice minister, suggested his appointment was possibly an interim decision, according to Neil Thomas, a fellow in Chinese politics at the Asia Society Policy Institute’s Center for China Analysis. “This could be a temporary arrangement while he recovers from a serious illness,” he added.

Either way, the personnel switch is unlikely to change the course of China’s foreign policy, which is set by Xi. Wang, who is head of the Communist Party’s foreign affairs panel, had already been standing in for Qin at international events in recent weeks.

That arrangement had proved slightly awkward. Trips by the UK’s foreign secretary and the European Union’s top envoy were both postponed after their counterpart in China went missing.

“China wants to avoid the embarrassment of continuously having Wang Yi appearing in foreign minister level meetings without having an appropriate title,” said Wen-ti Sung, non-resident fellow at Atlantic Council’s Global China Hub.

Wang’s comeback could pose challenges for President Joe Biden’s push to reboot ties with its biggest rival. When US Secretary of State Antony Blinken traveled to Beijing last month his meeting with Wang was tense. The Chinese diplomat blamed frayed bilateral ties on Washington’s “wrongful perceptions” of Beijing. By contrast, Qin was seen greeting Blinken with casual chit chat before their 7.5 hour meeting.

During his time in Washington, Qin embraced American culture, pitching balls at a St. Louis Cardinals game and riding in a Tesla with Elon Musk. Qin also made moderate remarks on hot topics, arguing Beijing would’ve tried to stop Russia from invading Ukraine if it had known and playing down the risk of a war with Taiwan.

Future Risks

Chinese Foreign Minister Qin Gang News Conference
Qin Gang Photographer: Qilai Shen/Bloomberg

It now remains to be seen whether Qin will return to Chinese politics, or even public view. His prolonged unexplained absence would carry risks for Xi.

The Chinese leader last December elevated the 57-year-old over more seasoned foreign ministry peers, as part of sweeping personnel reforms designed to install a team of loyalists. As part of that push for his own people, Xi also broke retirement norms to grant Wang, 69, a seat on the Politburo.

Any downfall of Qin so soon into his tenure could raise questions over why Xi allowed him to leapfrog to promotion. Sun Yun, a senior fellow and director of the China Program at the Washington-based Stimson Center, said it was “highly unusual” for the Chinese government not to provide a reason, such as “under investigation” or “health reasons” for a minister’s removal.

“Whether Qin Gang is being purged or whether he’s being laid low by a serious health issue,” Asia Society’s Thomas said, “both those situations would create a whole series of political problems for Xi.”

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