After a month of rumors and speculation, one of the most intriguing stories in Chinese politics came to a resolution this week — well, kind of.
Qin Gang, China’s foreign minister and a proponent of President Xi Jinping’s aggressive foreign policy, was ousted under mysterious circumstances after weeks of speculation regarding his whereabouts.
Qin, a longtime ally of Xi, had not been seen in public for nearly a month; one of his last high-profile meetings was with US Secretary of State Antony Blinken in Beijing in June. Though the foreign ministry earlier implied he was experiencing health issues, neither Xi nor the Chinese Communist Party had given a definitive reason for his absence, and still haven’t explained his departure. Naturally, rumors have spiked about the reason for Qin’s absence from the world stage and his sudden dismissal at a sensitive time for US-China relations.
Wang Yi, China’s previous foreign minister and the head of the CCP’s Central Foreign Affairs Commission, reassumed his former post on Tuesday, the Wall Street Journal reported. That’s likely an interim solution as Xi and the Politburo, one of the highest echelons of power within the party, decide who will fill the post on a permanent basis.
The mystery surrounding Qin’s disappearance and dismissal is likely to persist, unless — and perhaps even if — the Chinese government gives a full accounting of what happened to him and why. At this early date, that’s likely the most important information we can draw from such a monumental and strange series of events — that the inner workings of China’s government are only likely to become more obscure and increasingly consolidated the longer Xi is in power.
Wait, so where’d this guy go?
Qin was appointed to the foreign minister post just seven months ago, at the end of December, after previously serving as China’s ambassador to the US. At 57, he was one of the younger high-level officials in Xi’s government but had developed a close alliance with Xi that helped spur his rapid rise.
Qin had served as ambassador for only 17 months prior to his appointment to the foreign minister post; during his tenure as both ambassador and foreign minister, he had sought to maintain trade ties with the US while also insisting on China’s right to defend itself against what China sees as provocations from Western powers.
“If faced with jackals and wolves, China has no choice but to face them head-on,” Qin said at his first public appearance as foreign minister at the National People’s Congress in March. Qin was one of the first officials to promote the aggressive “wolf warrior” concept of Chinese diplomacy, part of the political ideology known as Xi Jinping Thought.
Though little is known about Qin’s personal life, he has built a career in foreign service, joining the diplomatic corps in his 20s, the Guardian reports. He served in the UK three times in the period between 1995 and 2011 and held important posts in the foreign ministry, including twice serving as the spokesperson between 2006 and 2014, and then in the role of chief protocol officer until 2018. In that capacity, according to Reuters, Qin handled Xi’s relations with international leaders.
His absence and subsequent dismissal have been the subject of intense rumors and speculation. Though the Chinese state initially claimed his absence from the international stage and important diplomatic meetings was due to a vague health issue, rumors of an affair and potential child with a television presenter — who has also disappeared from public view — have swirled on Chinese social media. Other theories have run the gamut from Qin getting caught up in corruption investigations related to the military, to serious medical issues, and more.
“The opacity of the situation has led to a lot of rampant speculation about what could be going on here and why someone who is as prominent as Qin would be sacked so shortly after taking such a high-profile post,” David Stroup, a lecturer of Chinese politics at the University of Manchester, told Vox.
On Tuesday, the Chinese legislature’s standing committee announced simply that “after voting, the meeting decided to remove Qin Gang from the post of Minister of Foreign Affairs he concurrently held and appointed Wang Yi as Minister of Foreign Affairs.” They included no explanation for the change.
“There are a lot of theories that are bubbling up, and the most prominent of them that seems to have the most traction and is garnering the most attention is that Qin Gang was caught having an affair,” Stroup said, “and that this affair was both revealing in terms of internal corruption that might have been happening and also probably personally damaging to Xi Jinping’s brand as a leader.”
This is really a story about Xi Jinping
Though it’s impossible to verify such rumors — and the Chinese government’s extreme secrecy means the full truth will likely never come to light — Qin likely would never have been removed from his job unless he had committed a serious error, and corruption would certainly fit the bill.
As the Economist’s Sue-Lin Wong explains in her podcast The Prince: Searching for Xi Jinping, Xi spent much of his early career routing out corruption and sees himself in a sense as an anti-corruption crusader.
Xi’s government is extremely circumspect about revealing information, and this situation is no different, Stroup explained. After an initial announcement that Qin would step down due to health concerns, government officials have refused to answer any further questions from reporters about his departure.
It’s not exclusive to Xi. As Mike Chinoy, a nonresident senior fellow at the University of Southern California’s US-China Institute, wrote on X, formerly Twitter, “In 1967, famed reporter Theodore White described politics in China as ‘a struggle of sea monsters. Only bubbles come to the surface to tell us that there are terrible struggles, but we don’t know what they are struggling about.’ With ouster of Qin Gang, apt for today as well.”
But Xi’s leadership has exacerbated that opacity as he has consolidated power, valuing loyalty above all and moving away from the more committee-driven politics of China’s recent past.