- By Stephen McDonell
- China correspondent
The Chinese Communist Party removes its foreign minister – and the public is just expected to accept it without explanation.
But the less people are told, the more they seem to want to know why this has happened.
On social media there are those poring over the most recent photos of Qin Gang in public and asking questions like: Does he look sick? Who are his foes in the Party’s senior ranks? How did they bring him down when he appeared to have such strong support from China’s all-powerful leader?
Others are dissecting posts from the “missing” TV presenter he’s rumoured to have been romantically involved with. Were those cryptic messages she was secretly sending out on his birthday?
China’s murky, unforgiving, power structure can be virtually impenetrable when it comes to revealing the truth. And that’s the way it is designed to be.
But at times like this, when a high-profile government official is dismissed without any explanation, you do wonder why anyone would climb up through the ranks of the Communist Party, seeking appointment and promotion, when the higher you rise the more dangerous it becomes.
One day you are in favour with the most powerful man in the land and the next day you are gone – probably forever – with no questions asked.
The announcement was delivered, typically, without fanfare and with hardly any detail.
In just a few sentences on the state news agency Xinhua – which were then read out on the main evening TV news bulletin – it was announced that Qin Gang, a rising star catapulted into the role of foreign minister by the leader Xi Jinping himself, had been removed.
The presenter said that Chairman Xi had signed the order, ratifying the decision at the National People’s Congress Standing Committee.
And with that it spelt the dramatic end of Mr Qin’s time as the global public face of China, only half a year after he had been appointed.
About a month ago, he had disappeared from his normal duties and the official reason given for his absence was some sort of health issue.
However, as the weeks went on and he failed to re-emerge, speculation turned to the possibility that he was being punished for stepping out of line politically.
At the time social media was abuzz with rumours of an affair with a female television presenter, normally quite active on social media, but who had suddenly also “disappeared”.
Some China watchers have wondered if these two potential explanations could be combined: that rivals within the Communist Party used this moral indiscretion to get Mr Qin.
Such an affair would not be against the law, but it could be construed as a potential breach of Party discipline.
The possibility that some sort of health issue played some part in this also can’t be completely ruled out but maybe that too has been used in some sort of political power play.
What’s more, because of the extremely opaque nature of Communist Party governance in China, none of these theories can be confirmed. But they can’t be dismissed either.
That said, some are more likely. So, when in doubt about what’s happening in Beijing, it’s always best to turn to the adage that, in China politics is about survival. The Communist Party’s survival and the survival of individuals.
If Qin Gang did something which threatened the Party’s grip on power, even in a small way, that could have undone him. And if his high-speed elevation also meant somebody else’s demise then this too brought risk.
One of the most surprising aspects of his removal is that he was seen as having the clear backing of Xi Jinping.
China’s leader brought him back from Washington, where he had been serving as ambassador to the US.
Immediately, analysts were watching his behaviour to see how much of a “wolf warrior” he would be in this new role. The wolf warriors were a group of Chinese diplomats who’d taken to social media in loud support of China, even if it meant abusing others as a means of turning attention away from the nation’s woes.
Going right back to his time as foreign ministry spokesperson, Qin Gang had been known to take a tough stance in defence of China, but also as someone who could turn on the charm.
At press conferences in the run-up to the 2008 Summer Olympics, he could be, at one moment, forcefully delivering the Party line and the next engaging in playful banter with the foreign press corps, ridiculing us in a way that had all the journalists laughing.
During such briefings, unlike most others who have done that job and who have stuck only to the agreed script, he was confident enough to expand on ideas and give reporters different responses.
He is intellectually strong and across the material at hand.
He seemed to have “disappeared” from public life earlier in his career, with no news of what he was he doing. Academics and journalists were wondering if that was it for him, only to see Mr Qin re-emerge by Xi Jinping’s side at meetings with foreign dignitaries.
As it turned out, he had been promoted and, as the Foreign Ministry’s Director of Protocol between 2014 and 2017, moved even closer to the inner circle. He looked after foreign trips for Mr Xi and ended up liaising even with the likes of former US President Donald Trump about arranging such visits.
After he became ambassador in Washington, the fluent English speaker and avid sports fan was being shown on Twitter in the US taking shots from the free throw line at NBA games. During an earlier diplomatic posting in the UK, there he was cheering on his beloved Arsenal.
Lesser foreign ministry officials potentially saw this and resented it.
For some in the Party, maybe this type of person wasn’t “wolf warrior” enough.
On the many occasions I have met him, he enthusiastically defended his country and presented it to others the best way he could.
Just prior to the Beijing Olympics I was chatting to him, along with a group of other journalists at a function. We were asking him whether the opening up measures introduced to coincide with the Games might be rolled back when they were over.
“No way!” He assured us. “China has only one gear and it’s forward!” he said, with an accompanying hand gesture like he was shifting the gear stick in a 1960s sports car.
On another occasion, he was speaking to us as we lined up at the Great Hall of the People waiting to go in to cover a meeting. We had a long wait so the subject turned to what it would take for China’s football team to become really good.
“It’s just a matter of time,” I said. “Naaa,” he responded: “They’re useless.” We all chuckled. He would actually love nothing more than China to do well in the game but he knows when to ease the mood with quips and turns of phrase and, also, he is a realist.
He always seemed like exactly the type of modern, sophisticated, servant that the Communist Party needed – someone they would have bottled and churned out a hundred times if they could.
Meanwhile, the appointment of the Communist Party’s senior foreign policy official to replace him as foreign minister does not come as a surprise.
Wang Yi has been foreign minister before, and his current position is more senior in the Chinese system. For now, he will look after both roles.
He will be seen as a safe pair of hands at a time of crisis. Eventually, after this all blows over, he can go back to his main job developing the Party’s foreign affairs policies and someone else can be chosen as foreign minister.
There is also much discussion about why Qin Gang has retained certain titles. Some have suggested that it might be face-saving or mean he is not completely in the wilderness. However, this is highly unlikely – it’s probably just a procedural matter.
Qin Gang is gone. You need look no further than the removal of all references to him on the foreign ministry’s website.
Others have considered the reputational damage for Xi Jinping and whether this dismissal reflects badly on his judgment in selecting a foreign minister removed so soon after his appointment. But this can also be turned around to show that nobody is safe from reprisals, even if they appear to have the blessing of the Party’s general secretary.
As for Qin Gang, while his ultimate fate is unknown in terms of potential detention or punishment, whichever way you consider it, there is no way it can be good.