6 June 2024

China’s foreign minister Qin Gang was removed from office on Tuesday, state media reported, after disappearing from the public eye for a month with little explanation from the ruling Communist Party.

Qin’s absence had sparked a storm of speculation that the 57-year-old, considered a confidant of President Xi Jinping, had fallen from grace or was subject to an official investigation.

China’s foreign ministry had previously said “health reasons” were to blame but more recently had refused to give any updates despite repeated questioning.

State media outlet Xinhua said Tuesday evening that China’s top legislature had voted to remove Qin from office and replace him with his boss Wang Yi.

Xinhua did not give a reason for Qin’s removal but said Xi had signed a presidential order to enact the decision.

Asked repeatedly about Qin earlier Tuesday, foreign ministry spokeswoman Mao Ning told journalists she had “no information” to offer and insisted that “China’s diplomatic activities are steadily moving forward”.

Rumour mill in overdrive

China has remained tight-lipped for weeks about the fate of Qin, who has not been seen in public since June 25 when he met Russia’s deputy foreign minister Andrey Rudenko in Beijing.

His absence from a high-level ASEAN summit in Indonesia two weeks later first raised eyebrows, with Qin’s health given then as the reason.

That did little to stem an explosion of rumours online, some of which claimed Qin was under official investigation for an alleged affair with a prominent television anchor.

“The CCP system is so opaque that it nurtured the rumours,” Moritz Rudolf from Yale Law School’s Paul Tsai China Center told AFP.

The US State Department said Tuesday that “it is up to China” to decide who serves as its foreign minister, and noted America’s top diplomat, Antony Blinken, met with Wang at the ASEAN summit and before that in Beijing.

“We will continue to engage with Foreign Minister Wang Yi and other Chinese officials and continue to believe that keeping lines of communication are incredibly important,” deputy spokesman Vedant Patel said in a statement.

“And it’s an important avenue to manage this relationship responsibly, which is something that the international community expects of us,” he added.

On Tuesday, some analysts urged caution about jumping to conclusions over Qin’s removal.

“He keeps his more senior position as a state councillor,” tweeted Neil Thomas from the Asia Society Policy Institute, a US think tank.

“So not 100 percent sure this is a purge.”

Manoj Kewalramani, a China expert at the Takshashila Institution in Bengaluru, India, told AFP that Qin keeping the State Council role “could be a product of his proximity to Xi Jinping”.

“It could be also a sign that this was not a product of displeasure with his work or any disciplinary violation but rather a health issue which prevents him from carrying out the intense (foreign minister) role,” he said.

China’s lack of explanation was described as “ominous” by Victor Shih, an expert on Chinese politics at UC San Diego, who added that choosing Wang as a replacement was “extraordinary in that there are many other viable candidates”.

Temporary arrangement?

Many of Qin’s duties over the past month had been taken on by Wang, China’s top diplomat who leads the ruling Communist Party’s foreign policy and outranks Qin in the government hierarchy.

Qin had only taken over from Wang as foreign minister in December.

“Wang Yi is a veteran of China’s diplomacy, and he is greatly trusted by the whole country,” tweeted Hu Xijin, a prominent commentator with the Global Times state tabloid.

Both Qin’s removal and Wang’s appointment were trending on social media platform Weibo late Tuesday.

Qin’s absence had left a vacuum at the top of China’s foreign ministry.

A visit to Beijing by European Union foreign policy chief Josep Borrell was abruptly called off this month.

And Bloomberg reported Friday that a visit by UK Foreign Secretary James Cleverly was also postponed due to Qin’s status.

“The whole situation makes the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Beijing’s diplomatic efforts look weaker than Beijing would like it to,” said Yale’s Rudolf.

Originally from the northeastern city of Tianjin, Qin frequently rubbed shoulders with Xi in an earlier role as chief of the foreign ministry’s protocol department.

His promotion over more experienced candidates, first to US ambassador and then China’s number two diplomat, was attributed to the trust placed in him by Xi directly.

“The quick rise of Qin Gang might have created some resentment among other senior people” within the ministry, said Rudolf.

A fluent English speaker, Qin was a visible presence in Washington through public and media appearances in which he defended China’s geopolitical position.

He also previously served as a spokesperson for the foreign ministry, where he gained a reputation for caustic responses to difficult questions from journalists.

By Jing Xuan Teng Agence France-Presse