• World
  • China

Mystery Absence of China’s Foreign Minister Fuels Concern

5 minute read
Updated: | Originally published:

The mystery three-week absence of China’s Foreign Minister Qin Gang, considered a rising star of Chinese politics, is fueling concerns over shrinking access to information in the world’s second-largest economy.

Qin’s absence comes on the heels of a rapid rise in elite Chinese politics that saw him serve for less than two years as U.S. ambassador, before being elevated to the post of foreign minister in December.

In that role, he’s kept a busy schedule. The 57-year-old’s longest previous absence was just eight days over the Lunar New Year Holiday, according to government records.

More from TIME

Now, the former envoy hasn’t been seen in public since June 25, when he met with visiting officials from Sri Lanka, Russia and Vietnam. Qin has since vanished from state media and comments about him have been excised from readouts of Foreign Ministry briefings.

His 23-day absence has seen Qin skip major diplomatic engagements, such as an international gathering of foreign ministers in Indonesia last week.

On Monday, President Xi Jinping was joined by Qin’s predecessor Wang Yi and deputy foreign minister Ma Zhaoxu when he met former Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte in Beijing. A day later, U.S. climate envoy John Kerry was received by Wang.

The vacuum of information around Qin’s status comes as China faces growing scrutiny over its lack of transparency. The world’s second largest economy has limited access to corporate data, court documents, academic journals and raided expert networks serving businesses, hampering investors’ ability to assess the economy.

Read More: China’s Expanded Anti-Espionage Law Threatens Business Consultants and Advisers

With major diplomatic events including the United Nations General Assembly and a Group of Twenty summit on the horizon in September, China has less than two months to clarify who is now its top representative on the world stage.

“There’s something everyone is talking about but can’t be talked about publicly,” Hu Xijin, former editor-in-chief of the state-run Global Times newspaper, wrote on Weibo over the weekend, without referencing Qin’s situation. “There needs to be a balance between keeping the operations running and respecting the public’s right to information.”

“Disclosing information would help improve official credibility and convey confidence to the private sector,” he added.

‘Physical Condition’

China’s Foreign Ministry was first asked to address Qin’s absence on July 7, after a Politico report cited possible health issues for the last-minute postponement of a planned meeting with European Union’s top diplomat Joseph Borrell. The ministry said it had “not heard about that” issue.

Four days later, officials said Qin would skip Association of Southeast Asian Nations meetings in Jakarta due to a “physical condition,” without elaborating.

Read More: The Perils of China’s Great Information Wall

Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Mao Ning said at a Monday briefing that “China’s diplomatic activities are underway as usual.” When asked if the former U.S. ambassador still occupied his post, she referred reporters to the ministry’s website, where he is listed as foreign minister.

Earlier this year, rumors emerged on Chinese social media that Qin had engaged in an extramarital affair with a Chinese television personality. When asked about a Times of London report on those rumors Monday, Mao said: “I’m unaware of what you said.”

China’s ruling Communist Party officially bans cadres from having extramarital relationships, and its discipline watchdog often cites affairs when charging senior officials with corruption. However, former Vice Premier Zhang Gaoli appeared at last year’s leadership congress shortly after a scandal over a purported account of a decade-long affair.

Health Secrets

China is notoriously guarded about the health status of its officials, meaning Qin could simply be sick. President Xi was the last member of the G-20 leaders to reveal his vaccination status during the Covid-19 pandemic, not making the information public until July 2022.

When China’s climate envoy Xie Zhenhua missed a panel on the sidelines of the Munich Security Conference in February the former official filling in for him told the gathering the Chinese politician was “recovering from Covid.” Days later, Xie apologized in an awards ceremony video address for not being able to attend in person due to “health reasons.”

President Joe Biden’s climate envoy John Kerry later told Foreign Policy magazine that Xie suffered “something of a stroke” in January, which prevented him from working for “a month-and-a-half or so.” China has never officially commented on his health.

In other circumstances, extended absences can foreshadow the end of a career. Xiao Yaqing, former minister of industry and information technology, vanished from government readouts and official media coverage for 21 days last year, before it was announced he’d been put under investigation by the country’s top anti-graft agency.

“It’s not implausible he’s been sidelined for health reasons,” said Richard McGregor, senior fellow for East Asia at the Lowy Institute in Sydney. “The longer he’s absent the more likely there’s some other much more serious reason for him not being able to appear in public.”

—With assistance from Yihui Xie, Xiao Zibang and Lucille Liu.

More Must-Reads from TIME

Contact us at letters@time.com