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Ouster of Xi’s Handpicked Foreign Minister Halts Rising Career

5 minute read

As foreign minister, China’s Qin Gang was expected to usher in an era of diplomacy that would help steady geopolitical ties. Instead, his unexpected removal after just seven months has caused a scandal on the world stage.

The former Chinese ambassador to the U.S. became his nation’s shortest-ever serving foreign minister on Tuesday, after China’s top legislative body stripped him from the post seven months into the job.

Qin will be replaced by his predecessor, Wang Yi, state media reported, without saying why the move was made. 

Qin’s removal ended a month of speculation over the envoy’s official status after he mysteriously dropped from public view. Beijing refused to explain his absence, leaving governments trying to piece together the clues. The U.K. and European Union delayed planned trips to Beijing amid his absence, while foreign ministers from other nations including the U.S. dealt with stand-ins.

But questions still linger over the cause of his ouster and whether he will return to public life. The former envoy remains listed as state councilor on the State Council’s website.

His removal could deal a blow to President Xi Jinping, who last year elevated the 57-year-old over more seasoned ministry peers, as part of sweeping personnel reforms designed to install a team of loyalists. 

“Qin Gang’s fall from grace was as unexpected and abrupt as his elevation over the heads of many experienced diplomats,” said Daniel Russel, vice president for international security and diplomacy at the Asia Society Policy Institute. “Since both moves are attributed to China’s leader, this episode will be seen as an embarrassing lapse in judgment at the top.”

Softer touch

Few Chinese officials have risen as swiftly through the diplomatic ranks as Qin. After being named vice minister in 2018, he took less than five years to take the titles of foreign minister and state councilor simultaneously. China’s previous foreign minister, Wang Yi, need some 17 years to make the same leap. 

Qin’s big break came in 2015 when he was given oversight of protocol at the foreign ministry, first as department head then as vice minister. That six-year stint saw him organize state visits of top leaders to China. It was likely in that role Qin gained access to Xi. He was pictured beside the Chinese leader during a meeting with then U.S. President Donald Trump in Beijing in 2017.

In 2021, Qin was dispatched to Washington, while he was still relatively unknown outside diplomatic circles or the Beijing press corps. That soon changed.  

The former news assistant for United Press International showed a flair for public relations, embracing American culture by openly attending a baseball game and riding in a Tesla with Elon Musk. He also made moderate remarks on hot topics, arguing Beijing would’ve tried to stop Russia from invading Ukraine if it had known its plans and playing down the risk of a war with Taiwan.

That softer messaging stood in contrast to the earlier more confrontational “wolf warrior” approach of some Chinese diplomats and came as tensions between the U.S. and China ramped up, evidenced by an acrimonious Alaska press conference the year he arrived in Washington.

Still, Qin’s impact in the U.S. was limited by his short tenure and reports he was snubbed by Biden administration officials amid frosty ties. He left America without meeting Secretary of State Antony Blinken.

Rare rise

After being appointed foreign minister in December last year, Qin continued to assertively press Beijing’s interests while softening the edges of some sharper geopolitical issues.

Qin defined China-Russia relations as “non-alliance, non-confrontational and not targeting a third country” in his first phone call with his Russian counterpart after Vladimir Putin’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine. Last month, the former envoy was seen greeting Blinken before their 7.5 hour meeting in Beijing, his last major engagement.

Yet Qin also never missed a chance to protest what he saw as Western efforts to contain China. He criticized the concept of installing guardrails in China-US ties, dismissing it as a tactic by Washington to gag his nation. He also fired back at German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock’s criticism of Beijing’s stance on Taiwan, a self-ruled island the Communist Party claims as its own.

Perhaps most importantly, Qin used his platform to pledge loyalty to Xi. At his only annual press briefing in March, Qin vowed to lead the ministry in implementing “Xi Thought,” an esoteric concept that’s helped elevate Xi’s political standing to the level of Mao Zedong.

When answering a question on Taiwan, Qin waved a red book of China’s constitution — even citing from it — as he stressed the need for “reunification.” In April, Qin used a public diplomacy forum in Shanghai to unpack Xi’s ideas on Chinese modernization.

While many questions remain around why Qin was removed from his role so abruptly, Wang’s comeback is unlikely to bring any significant change to China’s diplomacy. 

“The style of the foreign minister changes with and matches the need of the country and of the top leaders,” said Yun Sun, director of the China program at the Stimson Center in Washington. 

“As long as Xi still sticks to the same charm offensive,” she added, “everyone at the Foreign Ministry will follow the same tone.”

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