China’s leader Xi Jinping has removed the country’s recently appointed Foreign Minister Qin Gang after only seven months in office, following a still unexplained month-long absence that triggered speculation both within and outside China.
Much still remains unclear, even after Tuesday’s announcement, about the fate of Mr. Qin (57), whose rapid rise through China’s diplomatic ranks followed a tenure as Mr. Xi’s top protocol officer and cemented perceptions in Beijing that he was, for Mr. Xi, his man in the diplomatic corps.
Observers have cited both health and political reasons as possible explanations for his sudden removal.
While the country’s legislature on July 25 said, without offering details, he had been removed as Foreign Minister – his predecessor Wang Yi (70), who was last year promoted to the Politburo and as head of the Communist Party’s Central Foreign Affairs Commission, will take over the post for the time being – the announcement suggested Mr. Qin still continues as State Councilor in the Cabinet. The rank of State Councilor, in China’s government, is higher than ministerial posts (and only below the Premier and Vice Premier).
Mr. Qin’s last public engagement involved meetings with visiting Foreign Ministers, including from Sri Lanka, on June 25. He missed attending ASEAN meetings in Jakarta because of “health reasons”, the Chinese Foreign Ministry said earlier at a press briefing, although it later removed those remarks from the official transcript.
There has been no update since either on Mr. Qin’s health or his whereabouts, fuelling speculation about his fate, both within and outside China.
The ruling Communist Party is known for its extreme secrecy about the health of leaders, and the Qin affair has led to some observers calling for more transparency. However, if Mr. Qin was indeed suffering from a health issue – which some saw as explaining his continuing as a State Councillor – some observers questioned why the government hadn’t shared more information. In October, when the former leader Hu Jintao being escorted off stage at the once-in-five-year Party Congress triggered global headlines, State media reported, the very same day, that Mr. Hu had been feeling unwell. There has been no such explanation regarding Mr. Qin’s absence.
If Mr. Qin was in political trouble – which still remains unclear, although that has often been the fate of previous officials who suddenly disappeared from public view – it would mark an extraordinary and unprecedented political scandal given his proximity to Mr. Xi.
Mr. Qin (57) was named Foreign Minister in December ahead of more senior candidates. He had also been handpicked to serve in Washington in 2021 for his first ambassadorial posting – unprecedented in Chinese diplomatic appointments. His rise followed a stint as Mr. Xi’s top protocol officer. Mr. Qin also served earlier as Foreign Ministry spokesperson.
Whether he will return to his post later this year – or whether he stands to lose his other current positions as State Councillor and member of the party Central Committee – still remains unclear. The appointment of Mr. Wang (70) rather than a promotion for one of the serving Vice Foreign Ministers, in the eyes of some observers, suggested a temporary move, given that the top Chinese diplomat already runs the Party’s Central Foreign Affairs Commission.
For now, observed Joseph Torigian, Global Fellow at The Wilson Center who studies elite Chinese politics, in a post on Twitter, the removal “buys… time to complete an investigation and decide if they want to give him a hard or soft landing and when to give it to him. Or, allow his health to improve if that really is what’s going on.”