On Tuesday, July 25, the National People's Congress Standing Committee convened an emergency meeting and removed Qin Gang as China’s foreign minister. Wang Yi is the new face of Chinese diplomacy.
First, Qin disappeared from public view for the past month. He failed to attend a summit in Indonesia. Beijing pushed back his July 4 meeting with EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell. The very brief official explanation blamed unspecified health problems. Qin was one of the most high-level officials in the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). So, it was strange for him to have been absent for this long. Now, Qin has been summarily dismissed.
The strange case of a summary sacking
When high-profile figures in China go out of public view for extended durations, criminal investigation can follow. However, they sometimes reappear with no explanation. Chinese President Xi Jinping himself vanished for a fortnight shortly before becoming the country’s leader in 2012. This prompted speculation about his health and possible power struggles within the CCP.
Qin rose and fell like Icarus. He was ambassador to the US where he gained fame in China and infamy elsewhere as a tough-talking “wolf-warrior” diplomat. Before his ambassadorial position, Qin had been a foreign ministry spokesman and had helped organize Xi’s trips overseas, giving him the opportunity to work closely with China's de facto emperor.
Xi engineered Qin’s elevation and his fall has damaged China’s supreme leader. Clearly, the CCP’s top man has been making bad decisions and his judgment is suspect. Recently, Xi’s public problems have been increasing. Both his catastrophic zero-Covid policy and its silent, cowardly abandonment have hurt Xi’s reputation. He is also getting blamed for China’s real estate woes and a sputtering economy. Xi and the CCP stand damaged by Qin’s dismissal.
Wang, a career diplomat who speaks Japanese, is returning to a post he held between 2013 and 2022. The 69-year-old was standing in for Qin in recent weeks. Wang is an old hand. He was promoted to the Politburo of the CCP last year and is concurrently the head of the party's Central Foreign Affairs Commission. His return might be a move to stabilize Chinese diplomacy. Wang has been the foreign minister before and is regarded as a very capable official. Therefore, his appointment bodes well for continuing the stabilization of US-China relations.
Reading the tea leaves: a change in policy?
No one really knows why Qin fell from favor. For a long time, he was Xi’s blue-eyed boy. Speculation abounds of an extramarital affair and sex scandals. Yet it could well be that palace intrigues in Zhongnanhai caused Qin’s downfall.
Qin might have become the sacrificial lamb for increasing frustration with Xi’s policies. Wolf warrior diplomacy is not as popular as it used to be. It has led to an almost universally hostile reaction, from both democratic and authoritarian states across the Indo-Pacific. They have now started organizing militarily, politically and economically against China. This has caused the CCP high and mighty in Zhongnanhai some alarm.
Qin’s fall might be a sign of the pressure that China is feeling. The economy is experiencing lower growth rates, higher unemployment figures and more dissatisfaction. This does not mean that the CCP regime is about to collapse, but Xi and his party have certainly lost some of their shine. So, they have to do something.
China might be nominally communist but is culturally Confucian. The state is sacrosanct and, by extension, so is the Xi-led CCP. If something is not working, it must be the fault of an individual minister, official or party member. So, a fallible scapegoat must be found. Qin might have taken the hit to preserve the infallibility of Xi and the CCP.
More importantly for our purposes, what does Qin’s dismissal and Wang’s return mean for the Chinese foreign policy. A priori, it seems that Beijing is likely to be more conciliatory at least in its tone. Wang has more relationships with his foreign counterparts than Qin. This should help Wang to smooth some ruffled feathers. Xi wants continuity and predictability, not description and volatility, right now.
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