China removes foreign minister Qin Gang; Wang Yi gets old job back

The Foreign Ministry purged its website of Mr Qin’s biodata and his speeches shortly after the announcement.

Tan Dawn Wei

Tan Dawn Wei

The Straits Times


Mr Qin Gang (left) has been removed as foreign minister by Beijing, with his predecessor Wang Yi replacing him. PHOTOS: AFP, REUTERS

July 26, 2023

BEIJING – China has stripped Mr Qin Gang of his position as foreign minister after he spent just half a year on the job, and exactly a month after he disappeared from public view, which has spurred rampant speculation about his whereabouts.

The country’s top legislature voted to remove Mr Qin, 57, at an emergency meeting called on Tuesday. No reasons were given for his removal, but he retains his role as a state councillor, a Cabinet position that ranks below vice-premiers and above ministers.

The Foreign Ministry purged its website of Mr Qin’s biodata and his speeches shortly after the announcement.

In a surprise move, former foreign minister Wang Yi, 69, was reappointed to the position he had held for 10 years until the end of 2022.

He will continue to head the Communist Party of China’s (CPC) Central Foreign Affairs Commission General Office, which makes him the country’s top diplomat.

The legislative meeting, confirmed only a day earlier, also saw a change of leadership at the People’s Bank of China, with respected governor Yi Gang making way for his deputy Pan Gongsheng, 60. The 65-year-old central bank chief has reached the retirement age for minister-level officials.

News of Mr Wang’s comeback was met with surprise, with analysts saying it is likely a temporary solution until a suitable foreign minister can be determined.

“President Xi Jinping appears not to have fancied any of the younger crop of candidates, all of whom were deficient in rank – that is, not on the Central Committee – diplomatic experience, or familiarity with the United States or North America. This move signals that Wang will likely be a placeholder for the next foreign minister, whom Xi can now select more carefully, as he is likely wary of making another mistake,” said political risk consultancy Eurasia Group’s consultant for China and North-east Asia Jeremy Chan.

The Central Committee is the leadership body of the CPC comprising 205 full members and 171 alternate members.

Associate Professor Jonathan Sullivan, a China specialist at the University of Nottingham, said: “Wang Yi is capable and loyal, and if Xi needs to shore up the ministry or Politburo, he’s a sound choice.”

Mr Qin had been conspicuously absent from official duties since June 25, missing a string of key diplomatic events and meetings both at home and abroad.

Despite repeated questions from journalists at its daily briefings, the Foreign Ministry has kept mum about Mr Qin’s circumstances, saying only that he had a health condition that prevented him from attending a recent Asean summit.

The secrecy surrounding Mr Qin’s disappearance fuelled persistent rumours of an affair, an illegitimate child and espionage. While speculation swirled outside Chinese borders, news of his absence and the rumours were scrubbed from Chinese social media and even the Foreign Ministry’s website, where transcripts of the daily briefings are published.

Pundits also speculated about who would take over the Foreign Ministry if Mr Qin was removed. Mr Liu Jianchao, 59, who heads the CPC’s international liaison department, and Vice-Foreign Minister Ma Zhaoxu, 59, were named as possible candidates.

For now, Mr Wang will likely have to straddle both party and state portfolios.

The Central Foreign Affairs Commission General Office directorship “is the highest position within China’s diplomatic team, and finding someone to be in that position is trickier than finding a new foreign minister”, said Assistant Professor Liu Dongshu, who specialises in Chinese politics at the City University of Hong Kong.

“Also, that position may need a Politburo member, and replacing Wang with someone else as Politburo member will be an even bigger political shock,” said Prof Liu, referring to the elite 24-member decision-making body in the party.

What will happen to Mr Qin is less clear. He may not be charged with any crimes, and is likely to keep out of public view, said Eurasia’s Mr Chan.

“This reinforces our view that Qin’s ouster owes mostly to widely circulated rumours about his personal life, rather than more serious national security violations.”

Chinese netizens were left puzzled on Tuesday, questioning why a well-liked, competent foreign minister had to be replaced – and by someone who had retired from the job at that. But censors also got to work quickly, limiting the number of comments that could be seen on various posts.

Mr Qin’s abrupt removal makes him the shortest-serving foreign minister in China’s recent history. His rapid rise to the top was said to have been a source of jealousy for colleagues.

One of the youngest to be made a foreign vice-minister at the age of 52, Mr Qin earned President Xi’s trust during his term as chief of protocol from 2015 to 2018.

In 2021, he was sent to Washington as ambassador at the height of fraught relations between the two countries, but was called back to Beijing in 2022 and promoted to foreign minister and state councillor.

“There have been whispers about Xi’s judgment, in policy and now personnel. This is the problem with being ‘chairman of everything’ and appointing hand-picked people to central roles – if they mess up or do something to require replacement, that reflects on the leader,” said Prof Sullivan.

“Such an unplanned move at the top doesn’t come without some shock waves emanating outwards. But at the moment, it is too soon to speculate in an informed way about what it will look like.”

What the past month has shown is how increasingly non-transparent Chinese politics has become, said Prof Liu.

“I think people are worried about it because it makes it harder to understand, let alone predict, what China is doing and will be doing. It makes people more concerned about the stability and consistency of China’s governing strategies and policies, despite China repeatedly claiming that its strategies and policies are consistent.”

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