China removed outspoken Foreign Minister Qin Gang from office on Tuesday and replaced him with his predecessor, Wang Yi, in a move that has already fueled rumors over the personal lives and political rivalries of China’s Communist Party elite.
In its announcement on the national evening news, state broadcaster CCTV gave no reason for Qin’s removal. He had dropped out of sight almost a month ago and the Foreign Ministry has provided no information about his status.
That is in keeping with the ruling Communist Party’s standard approach to personnel matters within a highly opaque political system where the media and free speech are severely restricted.
The ministry made no comment at its daily briefing on Tuesday. The move comes amid a foreign backlash against China’s increasingly aggressive foreign policy, of which Qin was a chief proponent.
Adding to the mystery around Qin’s removal, it was approved at an unusually scheduled meeting of the Standing Committee of China’s rubber stamp legislature, the National People’s Congress, which normally gathers at the end of the month.
Qin last appeared on camera at a meeting with Sri Lanka’s foreign minister in Beijing on June 25. The Foreign Ministry at one point put his absence down to bad health, but swiftly scrubbed the reference from its official news conference transcript and has since said only that it had no information to report.
Wang had previously served as China’s top diplomat in his capacity as head of the party’s office of foreign affairs. Without other strong contenders, it appeared likely he would retain that position, at least in the short term.
The shakeup in China’s diplomatic lineup does not immediately indicate a change in foreign policy, including continued support for Russia’s war against Ukraine. However, it follows U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken’s trip to Beijing — as well as trips by other top serving and retired officials — in a bid to revive a relationship that’s deeply riven over trade, human rights, technology, Taiwan and China’s territorial claims in the South China Sea.
Earlier in his career, Qin had served as ministry spokesperson, during which he gained a reputation for criticism of the West and rejection of all accusations against China. That came to be known as “wolf warrior” diplomacy, after the name of a nationalistic movie franchise.
He later headed the ministry’s protocol department, during which he reportedly came to the attention of head of state and Communist Party chief Xi Jinping. He was next appointed ambassador to Washington from July 2021 to this January, a relatively short term but which presaged his rise to the head of the Chinese diplomatic service.
Qin’s previous tenure in the United States and his unexpected departure from the minister’s office throws additional glare on the troubled relationship between Washington and Beijing.
The U.S. has launched a flurry of diplomacy with China over recent weeks in hopes of reviving relations that have sunk to a historic low. Whether it will move the dial on ties between the world’s two largest economies and chief rivals for global influence remains an open question.
Climate envoy John Kerry met with officials, including Premier Li Qiang last week, following up on visits by Blinken and Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen. Centenarian former top diplomat Henry Kissinger, revered in China for helping break the ice in relations in the early 1970s, also made trip and was granted a sit-down with Xi.
“We are working to put some stability into the relationship … to make sure that the competition that we’re in doesn’t veer into conflict,” Blinken said in an interview with CNN broadcast on Sunday. “We will continue to do and say things that China will not like just as they’re going to continue to do and say things we won’t like.”
With its highly opaque political system abetted by strict controls over the media and civil society, it is difficult to gauge how Xi and other Chinese leaders see the relationship at this point.
Xi is the most authoritarian and nationalistic party head in decades and has taken a hard line on claims to sovereignty over the South China Sea and threats to attack the self-governing island democracy of Taiwan, while sternly rejecting foreign criticism of China’s crackdown on political and cultural expression against Muslim and Buddhist minorities and in the former British colony of Hong Kong.
During his time as spokesperson and minister, Qin defended those positions in terms that sometimes verged on the strident, saying in March that, “If the United States does not hit the brake, but continues to speed down the wrong path, no amount of guardrails can prevent derailing and there surely will be conflict and confrontation.”
“Such competition is a reckless gamble, with the stakes being the fundamental interests of the two peoples and even the future of humanity,” Qin said.
However, a window of opportunity remains open, particularly if Xi makes a state visit to the U.S. later this year, when he is expected to attend the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation forum summit in San Francisco, said Wang Yiwei, Director of the Institute of International Affairs at Beijing’s Renmin University.
“If the window of opportunity could be grasped to pull China-U.S. relations back on track, the relations might not spin out of control next year,” when the U.S. will mainly focused on the election season, Wang said.
Conflicts have sometimes overshadowed the massive economic and trade relationship, but the sides can still work together on relatively politically neutral issues such as climate change, Wang said.
Both countries are seeking for a way to manage “the most important and complicated bilateral relations in the world,” said Zhu Feng, dean of the School of International Studies at prestigious Nanjing University in eastern China.