BEIJING — China sacked its sometimes outspoken foreign minister on Tuesday and replaced him with his predecessor in an unusually scheduled meeting, a move that has fueled rumors about the personal lives and political rivalry of elites within the Chinese Communist Party.
The step of removing Qin Gang and replacing him with Wang Yi is unlikely to signal any significant change in the tough foreign policy adopted in recent years by leader Xi Jinping, who oversees the world’s second-largest economy – and main rival to the United States. US officials spoke highly of Qin’s departure after learning of the move.
In the national evening news announcement, state broadcaster CCTV gave no reason for Qin’s dismissal. Within minutes, all mentions and pictures of him were removed from the State Department website. However, he is still featured on the central government’s main website as a Cabinet-level state councilor, a possible sign that his political career isn’t quite over yet.
He disappeared from public view almost a month ago and the State Department has provided no information on his condition. That is in line with the ruling Communist Party’s standard approach to personnel issues in a highly opaque political system where the media and freedom of expression are severely restricted. The party rarely reveals its process or way of thinking when it comes to moves like these.
The department made no comment during its daily briefing on Tuesday.
The move comes amid a foreign backlash against China’s increasingly aggressive foreign policy, of which Qin is a key proponent. That now includes China’s political and economic support for Russia in its war with Ukraine, the signing of a secret security pact with the Solomon Islands that could give it a military foothold in the South Pacific, and refusing requests for more information about the origins of the COVID-19 pandemic that began in China in late 2019.
Add to the mystery surrounding Qin’s removal: It was passed at an unusually scheduled meeting of the Standing Committee of China’s rubber stamp legislature, the National People’s Congress, which usually meets at the end of the month. That creates speculation about what might be going on behind the scenes — and whether it’s directly related to Qin, overall policy, or both.
WHO IS THE DAO?
Qin, who comes from a powerful family of prominent party figures, last appeared on camera during a meeting with the Sri Lankan foreign minister in Beijing on June 25. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs at one point attributed his absence to ill health, but — in another tactic sometimes used by the party and government — removed the reference from the transcript of the report, stating that it did not include its official press release and
Wang, Qin’s predecessor and replacement, previously served as China’s top diplomat as head of the party’s foreign affairs office. Without other strong contenders, it looks like he’ll hold onto that spot at least for the short term.
The change in China’s diplomatic formation does not necessarily indicate a change in foreign policy, including continued support for Russia’s war against Ukraine. However, it follows US Secretary of State Antony Blinken’s trip to Beijing — as well as trips by other retired top officials — in an effort to restore deeply fractured relations over trade, human rights, technology, Taiwan and China’s territorial claims in the South China Sea.
Earlier in his career, Qin served as a spokesperson for the ministry. During that time, he gained a reputation as a critic of the West and denied all accusations against China. That became known as the “wolf warrior” diplomacy, after a movie franchise about nationalism.
He later headed the reception department of the ministry, during which time he is said to have attracted the attention of Xi Jinping, the head of state and General Secretary of the Communist Party. Qin was next appointed ambassador to Washington from July 2021 to January this year, a relatively short term that saw him rise to the position of head of China’s diplomatic service.
HOW THIS CAN IMPACT US-CHINA RELATIONSHIPS
The United States has rolled out a flurry of diplomacy with China in recent weeks in hopes of restoring a relationship that has sunk to historic lows. In Washington on Tuesday, two US officials said they did not believe the overthrow of Qin would have a significant impact.
Unnamed officials who discussed the internal thinking of the Biden administration said the move would not affect any US wishes or intentions to promote high-level dialogue with China.
That was most recently reflected in visits to Beijing by Blinken, Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen and climate envoy John Kerry. Blinken was the last US official to meet Qin as secretary of state, but all three officials met Wang, a relatively well-known figure in Washington.
Kerry met with officials, including Premier Li Qiang, last week, following visits by Blinken and Finance Minister Janet Yellen. Former centenarian top diplomat Henry Kissinger, who is respected in China for helping to break the ice in relations in the early 1970s, also made a trip and was allowed to sit down with Mr. Xi.
“We’re working to stabilize the relationship,” Blinken said in an interview with CNN that aired on Sunday.
China has an opaque political system backed by tight controls over the media and civil society, making it difficult to gauge how China’s leaders view the relationship at this point.
Xi Jinping is the head of the most authoritarian and nationalist party in decades and has taken a hard line on claims to the South China Sea and threatens to attack the self-ruled Taiwan island democracy. He rejected foreign criticism of China’s crackdown on political and cultural expression against Muslim and Buddhist minorities and in the former British colony of Hong Kong.
QIN’s CHEMICAL TRAINING IS ALWAYS UNSTRICTIVE
During his time as spokesman and minister, Qin has defended those positions with sometimes almost harsh words, saying in March, “If the United States does not brake and continues on the wrong track, no barrier can stop the derailment and there will inevitably be conflict and confrontation.”
“Such competition is a reckless gamble, with the stakes being the fundamental interests of the two peoples and even the future of mankind,” Qin said.
However, opportunities remain wide open, especially if Xi makes a state visit to the US later this year, when he is expected to attend the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit in San Francisco, said Wang Yiwei, director of the Institute of International Relations at Renmin University in Beijing.
“If the opportunity can be seized to pull China-US relations back on track, the relationship may not spiral out of control next year,” Wang said, when the US will mainly focus on the election season.
Conflict sometimes overshadows broad economic and trade ties, Wang said, but the parties can still work together on relatively politically neutral issues such as climate change.
Zhu Feng, dean of the Department of International Studies at the prestigious Nanjing University in eastern China, said both countries are seeking to manage “”the most complex and important bilateral relationship in the world”.
AP Diplomacy writer Matthew Lee contributed to this report.