Qin was last seen in public on June 25, when he met his counterparts from Russia, Vietnam and Sri Lanka. His planned meetings since then have either been canceled, or top diplomat Wang has gone in Qin’s place.
“The lengthy silence has been hugely damaging for Chinese diplomacy,” said Neil Thomas, a fellow for Chinese politics at the Asia Society Policy Institute in Washington. “The party’s addiction to secrecy in its internal operations is now having a debilitating effect on the country’s ability to work with the outside world.”
It also complicates the tentative thaw between the United States and China. When Secretary of State Antony Blinken met Qin in Beijing last month — just one week before the latter’s disappearance — they agreed that the Chinese foreign minister would reciprocate with a return journey to Washington.
Qin’s dismissal was announced by Chinese state media Tuesday after a hastily convened and unusually short meeting of the National People’s Congress Standing Committee, a top decision-making body of China’s rubber-stamp parliament. The committee gave no reason for Qin’s removal, and Wang was returned to foreign minister in his place.
The initial announcement “raises more questions than answers” about Qin’s removal, said Yu Jie, senior research fellow at Chatham House, a British think tank.
It did not give a reason for the change or say whether Qin kept his position as state councilor and on the Chinese Communist Party’s Central Committee, both more senior roles in the official hierarchy.
Wang, who retains his more powerful role as top foreign policy adviser, should be seen as a “caretaker” while top leadership searches for a sufficiently senior candidate who meets requirements for “absolute political loyalty,” Yu said.
“Because the main trajectory of China’s foreign policy is set by Xi, Qin Gang’s removal means only that the main conduit and mouthpiece for Xi’s decisions will change,” said Jude Blanchette, Freeman chair in China studies at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), referencing Chinese leader Xi Jinping.
Tuesday’s sparse announcement did little to quell rampant speculation among overseas Chinese political commentators about what led to Qin’s disappearance or who might eventually take over from Wang, who is 69, as foreign minister.
Some cited Qin’s apparent retention of his more important roles as evidence of a benign explanation such as a health scare. Others noted that the record of his past activities was rapidly scrubbed from the Chinese Foreign Ministry website, suggesting he is in serious trouble politically.
A popular but hard-to-verify theory is that Qin had an extramarital affair and is being investigated for violating Chinese Communist Party rules requiring “social morality and family virtues” from officials.
“My guess is we will never know the full story. There could be corruption involved. But the most credible public explanation is the anchor baby,” said Bonnie Glaser, director of the German Marshall Fund’s Asia Program, referring to the alleged affair and speculation that he had a child out of wedlock born in the United States.
If true, that would be “a slap in the face to Xi Jinping, because it implies that Qin Gang doesn’t have confidence in China’s future,” Glasser said.
Probes by China’s powerful anti-graft agency, the Central Commission for Discipline Inspection, are often conducted in secret for extended periods before final punishments are announced.
Whatever the final explanation, Qin’s removal suggests that senior officials lack job security under Xi. “Today, Xi is the only patron who can protect you. If you lose his favor, you are gone,” said Minxin Pei, an expert on Chinese politics at Claremont McKenna College.
Qin’s departure is a shocking fall for a rising star of China’s increasingly assertive diplomacy.
He was seen as a loyalist who had been rapidly promoted under Xi, who broke with established norms when he claimed a third term as China’s top leader last year.
Qin rose quickly to prominence as Foreign Ministry spokesman, then chief protocol officer, arranging many of Xi’s international trips, before becoming vice minister.
In July 2021, he was elevated to Chinese ambassador to the United States, but spent barely 18 months in the role before being promoted in December to foreign minister. At 57, he is one of the youngest officials to hold that position.
Over the past month, Qin’s meetings with European officials were canceled, for vague “health reasons,” and Wang attended diplomatic summits in Jakarta and Johannesburg in his stead. But China’s Foreign Ministry has refused to answer questions about Qin’s whereabouts.
Even on Tuesday, after the emergency session was announced, Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Mao Ning only repeated answers she had previously given at the daily news briefing.
“I have no information to offer,” she said Tuesday. “China’s diplomatic activities are underway as usual.”
As foreign minister, Qin was known for his uncompromising pursuit of China’s policy goals. During his first news conference in the role, he cracked open a copy of China’s Constitution, bound in red, and read aloud a description of Taiwan as “the sacred territory of the People’s Republic of China.”
As ambassador to the United States, Qin had blamed Washington for stoking tensions over Taiwan, a self-ruled democratic island that Beijing considers part of its territory. He took over the post from long-serving moderate Cui Tiankai as relations between the world’s two largest economies became increasingly strained.
Unable to make much headway in D.C., Qin traveled across the country. He threw out the first pitch at a St. Louis Cardinals baseball game and philosophized with Elon Musk about the meaning of life from behind the wheel of a Tesla.
Qin’s posting in Washington after stints in London was interpreted in some quarters as evidence that Xi was looking to fast-track him.
But even if Xi was responsible for Qin’s meteoric rise, the Chinese leader’s strong personal grip on power means he is unlikely to share the blame for his acolyte’s fall.
“Whatever Qin’s ultimate sin, it will be framed as a betrayal of Xi rather than Xi’s misjudgment in appointing Qin in the first place,” said Blanchette, the CSIS analyst.
Ellen Nakashima in Washington and Pei-Lin Wu in Taipei contributed to this report.