After one month without making a public statement or appearance, Qin Gang was removed from his position as foreign minister on Tuesday. At least for now, he will be replaced by his boss Wang Yi, who leads the CCP’s foreign policy apparatus and previously served as foreign minister. Government spokespersons had initially attributed Qin’s absence to health reasons, without elaborating further, and the state-media announcements of his removal on Tuesday gave no further explanation. It remains to be seen whether there are political factors that caused his removal.
Shi Jiangtao from the South China Morning Post reported on the unusual procedure that led to Qin’s removal:
The decision to remove Qin from his post was made at a special session of the National People’s Congress Standing Committee, which took place one day after the top decision-making body, the Politburo, convened on Monday.
According to rules updated in June last year, the NPC Standing Committee holds a session once every two months, but in practice, usually holds them near the end of even-numbered months. An interim session for special cases can be scheduled by the committee’s chairman.
Qin’s removal as foreign minister is in line with the Organic Law of the National People’s Congress, which came into effect in March 2021. The rule empowers the Standing Committee rather than a national congress to appoint or remove from office some members of the State Council. [Source]
The fact that Qin retained his position as a state councilor made some analysts believe that Qin’s removal as foreign minister was indeed due to health reasons and not the result of a political purge. Others inferred that it would allow authorities time to complete their investigation and decide how to deal with Qin, should there be political factors at play. It could also delay scrutiny of Xi’s role in promoting Qin to foreign minister above more experienced candidates, in the hope that observers move on to other issues. Alternatively, as some posited, it could mean that an investigation has already concluded and yielded only minor disciplinary action. Still others suggested it could simply be due to Qin’s close proximity to Xi.
Since his removal on Tuesday, hundreds of press releases about Qin have been scrubbed from the website of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, suggesting a political purge. Curiously, however, those same press releases are still available on other official media sites, such as the People’s Daily. Hunting for “melons” on Weibo shortly after the announcement of Qin’s removal, netizens lamented that replies to certain posts were censored, and the comment sections under some official posts were blocked. However, prior to his removal, discussions of Qin’s absence were not strictly censored on the Chinese internet or social media.
“The lack of an explanation opens more questions than provides answers,” said Ja Ian Chong, associate professor of political science at National University of Singapore. As Chris Buckley and David Pierson highlighted in The New York Times, what is clear at least is that the incident underlines the opacity and volatility of China’s political system:
“The suddenness and opacity surrounding Qin’s dismissal demonstrates the volatility that has now become a feature of China’s political system under Xi,” said Jude Blanchette, the holder of the Freeman Chair in China Studies at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.
[…] “If people wanted displayed on a wide screen the opacity of the Chinese system, and how that can — even if just temporarily — hobble the execution of policy, then they’ve got a prime example of it here,” Richard McGregor, a senior fellow at the Lowy Institute in Sydney who studies Chinese foreign policy, said in a telephone interview. Still, he added, Mr. Xi was too powerful to suffer much damage from Mr. Qin’s fall. [Source]
Joe Leahy, Edward White, and Demetri Sevastopulo from The Financial Times described how Qin’s replacement, Wang Yi, is seen as a stable choice for China’s foreign relations:
Wang’s familiarity to the US and other major powers would help ensure continuity and predictability, said Paul Haenle, a former China adviser to US presidents George W Bush and Barack Obama.
“During an obviously disruptive period for the Chinese foreign ministry, Wang Yi is one of the less disruptive choices to take over,” he added.
Dennis Wilder, a former top CIA China analyst, said Wang was the “safest choice possible” after Qin’s departure. “After an embarrassing 30-day absence, Xi needs to reassure the globe that there is no deep problem in the Chinese leadership [and] that Qin Gang’s problems are personal not national.” [Source]
Wang is also a convenient choice because if Qin has been sidelined only for health reasons, Wang could leave Qin’s foreign minister position and return to his own more easily than other appointees. Chun Han Wong from The Wall Street Journal described how Wang’s appointment is likely a temporary one, regardless of Qin’s status:
In China’s political system, the foreign minister isn’t necessarily the country’s highest-ranking diplomat. That role resides with the most senior foreign-policy official by party rank, who is currently Wang, the director of the office of the party’s Central Foreign Affairs Commission.
State media reports didn’t mention any change to Wang’s party roles, suggesting he would occupy his Politburo and Foreign Ministry positions concurrently—an arrangement that, after the 1990s, has only taken place during a transition period between officeholders.
Political analysts say Wang’s return as foreign minister appears to be an interim appointment to buy time while Xi and other senior officials figure out longer-term arrangements. [Source]
Reflecting this week on his professional encounters with Qin Gang, former Belarusian diplomat Pavel Slunkin wrote a Twitter thread describing Qin’s obsessive attention to detail in service of Xi and the hypercompetitive environment that dominates the Chinese political establishment: