In the early morning of July 29, Beijing time, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Hua Chunying tweeted a video to wish “Ambassador Qin Gang” a “safe and smooth journey across the Pacific Ocean.” The official Twitter account of the Chinese Embassy in the United States had been updated with Qin’s name and profile picture. Later in the afternoon, Washington time, Qin tweeted a photo of himself walking alongside aides and deputies in JFK airport, with the message: “Arrived in USA. Looking forward to the coming time in the country!”
As the next Chinese ambassador to the United States, Qin Gang, 55, will need to contend with fraught ties between the two superpowers.
Unlike his predecessor, Cui Tiankai, a veteran diplomat with deep knowledge of U.S. affairs and personal connections with incumbent and former U.S. government officials and lawmakers, Qin has never specialized in dealing with the United States
To foreign journalists covering China, Qin is known as the pioneer of excoriating one-liners. often delivering punchlines wrapped in Chinese metaphors. His two terms as Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokesperson made him one of the first Chinese foreign ministry celebrities. Qin left his spokesperson post two years prior to the release of the blockbuster “Wolf Warrior 2,” which has since come to symbolize the unapologetically nationalistic mood among Chinese diplomats to stand up for Beijing’s interests and avenge its enemies on the world stage.
A former foreign correspondent who attended Qin’s press conferences described him as someone who “talks with theatrical flair,” “contemptuous and charismatic at once.” Another remembered him to be “tough and plainspoken.”
Qin quoted liberally from Confucius classics, suggesting the U.S. “should have a careful study of [Confucius’] works” to “first keep the heart upright, refine the soul, and then regulate the family well so as to contribute to good governance of the country and work to build a harmonious world.”
He defended China’s ballooning defense spending, half-jokingly telling reporters that China would not stay “as a boy scout” and that Chinese People’s Liberation Army was not a “children corps equipped with red-tasseled spears.”
At a press event after then-President Barack Obama reportedly turned down Beijing’s invitation to include China during a trip to visit U.S. allies in Asia, Qin famously remarked, “Cozying up to the U.S. in exchange for the U.S. president’s visit is the last thing Beijing would do,” concluding that “I’d say China is right here, whether he comes or not.”
A few days after Obama gave a speech declaring the U.S. would remain world leader for the next century, Qin commented, “it must be nice to be the boss of the world,” adding, “China was once boss of the world for more than a century.”
In response to a Chinese netizen’s question, “How can a spokesman control his emotions when he encounters provocative questions during a press conference?” Qin replied, “The main character of the briefing room is the spokesperson, and it should be the spokesman to modulate the emotion and rhythm of the press conference.”
James Green, a diplomat with two decades of experience in the U.S. government working on bilateral China-U.S. relations and currently a senior advisor for McLarty Associates, recalls his impression of Qin Gang: “I never worked with Qin directly during my time working for the State Department and at the U.S. Embassy. I would say I first became aware of him when he was the spokesman while I was in Washington at the time following his announcements from the podium of the Foreign Ministry.”
“I guess I would say he’s one of the first foreign ministry spokespersons that I can remember by name. I’m sure the position existed before him, but he was one of the more prominent holders of that position as the spokesman.”
Qin’s most recent post was in protocol, where he was in charge of arranging high-level official visits for Beijing leadership, including Xi Jinping. That post gave him unique access to the top decision-making echelon.
Qin is not considered a Xi Jinping lieutenant from his Fujian or Zhejiang home base. “Qin is a later comer to Xi Jinping’s inner circle. But since Xi has become the secretary general, through mainly luck, Qin has had a lot of face time with Xi Jinping as the person in charge of protocol,” said Victor Shih, a University of California, San Diego, professor of political economy who specializes in elite Chinese politics.
Shih notes that Qin has had to arrange Xi’s overseas trips, of which there were many, especially during his first term. Qin also was responsible for arrangements when leaders of other countries visited Beijing. “Through these arrangements and through attending these trips and meetings with Xi Jinping, Qin has had a lot of close interactions with Xi Jinping and must have made a good impression,” said Shih. “He must have gotten Xi’s trust and is now enjoying the fruits of that trust.”
According to Pin Ho, the founder and CEO of the New-York based Mirror Media Group and a veteran political analyst, the importance of the fact that Qin has trust from Xi Jinping is not to be overlooked.
“In today’s political landscape, proximity to Xi Jinping means proximity to decision-making. At the end of the day, that’s all that matters,” said Ho. “U.S. politicians have been scratching their hands trying to understand Xi Jinping’s intentions. Qin Gang’s role as a trusted interlocular is indispensable. This alone trumps all country-specific experience, knowledge and contact network.”
The leading candidate to succeed Cui as China’s ambassador to the U.S. was once believed to be Zheng Zeguang, who had held a post in the United States for years. “Deciphering the back-room calculations is impossible, but the fact that Zheng was skipped over and assigned to a much less important role as head of the Chinese embassy in the U.K. indicates a significant downweighting of experience in diplomatic personnel shifts,” said Ho. “It’s premature to tell if the departure from tradition will serve Beijing’s interests. It’s much more important for President Biden’s team to accurately gauge Xi Jinping’s intentions to avoid strategic missteps.”
The point was echoed by White House’s top official for Asia, Kurt Campbell, who remarked during a conference in June that there is a “smaller and smaller group” of people who help shepherd Xi’s decision-making, and that China’s top diplomats Yang Jiechi and Wang Yi were “nowhere near, within a hundred miles” of Xi’s inner circle.
Campbell said he believes the Chinese foreign policy establishment understands that the country’s policies have helped to cause a global backlash but admitted his doubts on whether that message is getting through to the inner circle in the Chinese leadership.
Green noted that over the last decade, there’s been a move away from rewarding expertise with the United States in the Foreign Ministry so that the experts in the United States end up not getting promoted anymore. “And I think that’s a change from [former foreign ministers and ambassadors to the U.S.] Yang Jiechi and Li Zhaoxing. I think now in the Chinese system, it’s a bit of a detriment to say, you know the United States too well. The more expertise you have in the United States, the more likely that your career is going to stall or be sidetracked somewhere else, whereas before it was almost a ticket to advancement. ”
Experts agree that Qin has in front of him the herculean task of shepherding the frayed China-U.S. relationship. Since 2018, China has been confronted with a torrent of tariffs, sanctions, export controls, and visa restrictions and has resorted to tit-for-tat measures, while enlisting its diplomats and jingoistic state mouthpieces for vitriol.
Six months into the tenure of President Joe Biden, there’s no sign that either side wants to dial down the temperature in the conflict. If anything, Biden’s approach of rallying allies to join his campaign in countering China has alarmed Beijing leadership even more.
“The challenge for Qin Gang or for any Chinese diplomat is to open up the aperture of their interactions beyond the State Department and beyond the U.S. government to other parts of U.S. society, including business associations, universities and students, inside and outside Washington,” Green remarked.
“It’s quite a different job,” he added. “It’s not a mechanical challenge. It’s a product challenge, what the Chinese ambassador in the United States is selling. It’s not a great product to sell. It doesn’t matter how good a salesman you are, how many meetings you do, you are trying to push a product that, in the eyes of many Americans, is quite damaged. So it’s going to be a challenge.”
“I don’t care how gifted Qin is, it’s really going to be hard to explain what China is doing in Hong Kong, Xinjiang, the South China Sea, the East China Sea and in the Himalayas with India. It’s going to be hard to explain that away, even if he’s a very gifted communicator, which he clearly is,” Green concluded.
“Xi Jinping has made it known that China is now a major power. It is going to stand firm on a number of issues. But on the other hand, I think most reasonable people will agree that the U.S.-China relationship has gone off track and the ambassador, as well as the entire foreign policy establishment in China, should have some interest in at least getting the relationship a little bit more back on track.” Shih observed.
The restrictions on international travels and face-to-face interactions didn’t help. “During the first years of Xi Jinping rule as the secretary general of the Chinese Communist Party, he met with multiple senior U.S. leaders, not just then President Obama and then Vice President Biden, but also the national security adviser and even the mayor of L.A. And now there’s scarcely any direct meetings between high level U.S. and high level Chinese officials,” Shih noted. “The vice ministerial level meeting in Tianjin that we just saw is very low-level compared to what happened back in 2013.”
Part of what Qin Gang can bring to the table is more high-level conversations. “Because of this deep familiarity with protocols, he might be able to use normal diplomatic protocols as a channel to put the U.S.- China relationship a little bit more back on track and increase the density of meetings between the U.S. and China. There are just a lot of issues that the two countries need to discuss. Without dialogue and conversation, no progress will be made.” Shih said.
“Ambassador Qin has spent considerable time around President Xi and his top advisors. I expect that his familiarity with them and their thinking will be an asset in his current role as the Chinese ambassador to the United States. He will be able to speak authoritatively about the top leadership’s views on the relationship,” said Ryan Hass, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution who was director for China at the National Security Council during Xi Jinping’s state visit to the United States.
“Qin is expected to adopt his own style for the role. His predecessor, Ambassador Cui, was selective and purposeful in his public appearances and public statements,” said Hass. “Given Qin’s background and his greater embrace of public diplomacy, he is expected to be more vocal and visible in his articulation of Chinese views on issues affecting the US-China relationship,”
In 2013, Cui Tiankai, then incoming Chinese ambassador, was given a reception by U.S. diplomats upon arrival. This time no State Department officials were present to greet the new ambassador on his arrival in Washington, yet another sign of how frayed the bilateral relationship has become.
On the evening of July 28, 2021, Qin Gang delivered his first remark to Chinese and American media upon arrival. He started by recounting Henry Kissinger’s secret visit to China, which opened the door to the normalization of China-U.S. relations.
“Dr. Kissinger had to travel covertly to China via a third country. Fifty years later today, as the 11th Chinese Ambassador to the United States, I can travel most openly and fly directly to this country. How the world has changed with the passage of time! I believe that the door of China-U.S. relations, which is already open, cannot be closed.”
“Where this important relationship will be headed is vital for the well-being of the Chinese and American peoples and for the future of the world,” Qin added, and promised to “safeguard the foundation of China-U.S. relations, uphold the shared interests of the two peoples, and endeavor to bring China-U.S. relations back on track.”