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Snap Insight: Foreign Minister Qin Gang’s abrupt removal is embarrassing for Beijing and Xi Jinping

LONDON: Silence, rumour and then a purge – but at least the wait is finally over. On Tuesday (Jul 25), China’s foreign minister Qin Gang was removed from his position after just seven months, becoming the shortest-serving foreign minister in the country’s modern history.

For exactly a month, since Jun 25, Mr Qin had disappeared from all media – highly unusual for the face of Chinese diplomacy. He had been one of the most media-present senior leaders, featuring in state-run newspapers on a near-daily basis meeting foreign leaders and defending China’s position in international fora.

The reason for his disappearance is still not known. The foreign ministry cited health reasons, while Chinese-language media debated lurid rumours of an extramarital affair with a television news personality and a child born out of wedlock in the United States.

Mr Qin remains a state councillor, a senior position in the state bureaucracy he was only elevated to in March. But as his name is currently being purged from the foreign ministry’s web archive, it seems unlikely he will retain this role.

His ministerial role has been taken over by his predecessor and superior, Politburo member Wang Yi. This may be a temporary solution: Mr Wang is unlikely to relish returning to a position he held for nearly 10 years, effectively a demotion.

Whoever takes over the ministerial position in the longer term, the removal of Mr Qin is an embarrassing volte-face for Beijing.

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A PERSONAL EMBARRASSMENT FOR XI JINPING?

The 20th National Party Congress in October 2022 and the 14th National People’s Congress in March were meant to usher in President Xi Jinping’s third term, sealing his position as undisputed leader as he bent the party and system to his needs.

But this third term has already been beset by a chaotic exit from a zero-COVID policy, a lacklustre economic performance and now a high-profile firing.

This also has a note of personal embarrassment for Mr Xi. Mr Qin was considered a trusted aide, having been head of the protocol department from 2014 to 2017. His meteoric rise had been attributed to his close ties with and backing from the president.

It makes his swift downfall as surprising, raising questions about Mr Xi’s judgment in promoting him so rapidly.

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PATH FOR “WOLF WARRIOR” DIPLOMACY

For China’s diplomacy, it has meant confusion, as the change in minister has seemed to seize the mechanisms of the ministry and led to other countries being unable to advance their diplomatic goals. Mr Qin missed a key Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) foreign ministers’ meeting in Indonesia, for instance, and a host of bilateral and multilateral meetings that went with it.

Furthermore, Mr Qin’s ouster makes it less clear how China’s diplomats should present themselves: Should they be bold and brash as Mr Qin had been earlier in his career as a wolf warrior, or cautious and less combative to avoid a similar fate?

Even with the most-senior diplomat, Wang Yi, being a similarly confident and at times abrasive voice, lower-level Chinese foreign service employees keen for promotion are unlikely to want to stick their neck out right now.

Over time, Beijing will no doubt bring greater stability to the top of the ministry, installing another minister and moving on from Mr Qin’s short tenure. But for now, the abrupt way in which Mr Qin was kicked to the kerb, with his silent disappearance creating a vacuum for speculation, has just created turbulence and disorientation in China’s diplomacy. 

Christian Le Miere is a foreign policy adviser and the founder and managing director of Arcipel, a strategic advisory firm based in London.

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