It has now been almost a month since Chinese Foreign Minister Qin Gang made a public appearance. The lack of information given by the Chinese government has ceded the narrative around his absence to a growing set of rumors. While the actual reasons are still not clear, the incident prominently showcases the secrecy and unpredictability of the Chinese political system.
Qin’s last public appearance was at a meeting with visiting Russian, Sri Lankan and Vietnamese officials on June 25. He was absent from a gathering of foreign ministers in Jakarta, Indonesia that he was expected to attend last week. Yuchen Li from DW listed other high-level diplomatic meetings that Qin has missed:
A meeting between Qin and the European Union’s top diplomat Josep Borrell had to be postponed. The visit, planned to take place two weeks ago, was called off by Beijing just two days before Borrell’s arrive, according to Reuters.
Qin also missed out on high-profile talks this month between Chinese and US officials, including US Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen and Climate Envoy John Kerry.
When asked whether Qin would join Wang Yi at the BRICS summit next month in South Africa — as well as visits to Nigeria, Kenya and Turkey — Foreign Ministry spokesperson Mao said that there was “nothing more to add” to the line-up for Wang’s trip. [Source]
Chinese officials said that Qin’s absence from the Jakarta meeting was due to his “physical condition.” Spokespersons for the Ministry for Foreign Affairs have repeatedly declined to provide more information, despite constant questions from foreign media. Ryan Hass, a former adviser on China and Asia at the National Security Council under the Obama administration, said Qin’s disappearance conjured up “the image of a duck swimming in relation to China’s bureaucratic politics—serene above the water and violent kicking below it.”
Some clues below the surface added to the mysterious circumstances. Comments about Qin were deleted from the readouts of the Foreign Ministry briefings, and censors blocked a WeChat post claiming that his absence was simply due to a mild flu, on the basis of breaching “relevant laws and regulations.” Phil Cunningham revealed that, in his July 15 article for the South China Morning Post, five sentences about Qin were removed without notice after it was accepted for publication. On Weibo, netizens took to the comment sections of posts to discuss Qin’s absence, before the comment sections were closed. But VOA journalist Wenhao Ma noted that censorship of the incident and of Qin’s name has not been strict, and Ian Chong from the National University of Singapore stated that “[t]he absence of censorship makes people wonder if there is any truth to rumours.”
Over the past few weeks, there has been a spike in archive.org views of Qin’s page on the Ministry of Foreign Affairs website, as onlookers anticipate future censorship. The page is still intact, but Cunningham noted that all of Qin’s tweets from before February 2022 have been deleted. Based on content from Western and Chinese social media platforms, those seeking clues for his disappearance have posited that one reason may be an extramarital affair and baby with U.S.-based Phoenix TV reporter Fu Xiaotian while Qin was Chinese ambassador to the U.S. Han Yang compiled the purported evidence for this theory in a long Twitter thread:
Regardless of the true reasons, the incident has unsettled both foreign and Chinese diplomats. The episode “is embarrassing and unsettling to Chinese diplomats because of the uncertainty it injects in a system that is tightly controlled,” said Daniel R. Russel, a former senior American diplomat now at the Asia Society Policy Institute, adding, “For foreign diplomats it raises even more questions about the bureaucratic weight of China’s foreign ministry.” Laurie Chen, Martin Quin Pollard, and Kate Lamb from Reuters described the negative impacts abroad:
“Qin’s disappearance does cast much uncertainty and confusion over the consistency, stability and credibility of Beijing’s decision-making,” said Yun Sun, director of the China Program at the Stimson Center in Washington.
“If a vice-national level leader can just disappear without much of an explanation, people find it difficult to trust and count on any Chinese leader or official and their positions.”
[…] A prolonged absence will “confuse other countries seeking to build channels of communication with China”, said Wen-Ti Sung, a political scientist at the Australian National University.
“Predictability and transparency are essential to regularizing dialogues and to trust-building, both of which are key ingredients to sustained cooperation.” [Source]
Shi Jiangtao from the South China Morning Post collected other troubled international reactions to Qin’s absence:
[Philippe Le Corre, a senior fellow at the Asia Society Policy Institute’s Centre for China Analysis, said:] “I am not sure if Qin’s absence matters that much to foreign chancelleries. They are used to dealing with various offices which often do not translate well overseas. But if by any chance he was to come back, what would be his credibility as Chinese foreign minister?”
[…] Zhiqun Zhu, an international relations professor at Bucknell University in Pennsylvania, said the mystery would fuel negative perceptions of China’s opaque system.
“Qin’s disappearance has also affected China’s diplomacy at a critical juncture,” he said, citing Borrell’s cancelled trip to Beijing. “China needs to bolster relations with the EU now when bilateral ties are facing some headwinds.” [Source]
Analysts and journalists have renewed attention to Qin’s background and highlighted his close ties to Xi Jinping, who may be put into a difficult position should Qin’s absence be due to more nefarious reasons than “health,” given Xi’s hand in promoting Qin ahead of other more experienced officials. Expanding on Qin’s background, The Economist described Qin’s absence as a blow to Chinese diplomacy and a sign of Xi’s shroud over elite politics:
In encounters with foreigners, Mr Qin shows deep knowledge of the Western world, gained during several postings abroad. That familiarity appears to co-exist with disdain for a West seen as declining, arrogant and hypocritical. Indeed, some claim that Mr Qin reserves a special scorn for Western reporters, dating back to his first job out of university, as a government-supplied researcher for an American news agency in Beijing. Still, his absence is a source of regret on the capital’s diplomatic circuit. In Mr Xi’s China, the black box of elite politics is only getting more opaque. When clever, candid officials vanish, they are missed. [Source]
Health is a common explanation given by Chinese authorities to explain long absences of top officials. Xi himself disappeared from the public for two weeks in September 2012 due to a “sport injury,” before emerging to claim the Party leadership. In February 2012, the Chongqing city government said that its head of police Wang Lijun was taking a “vacation-style treatment” for stress and overwork. Wang later turned out to have fled to the U.S. consulate in Chengdu to seek asylum, and was sentenced to 15 years in jail for a raft of misdeeds.