25 July 2023

China’s foreign minister replaced after weeks of absence

25 July 2023

China’s outspoken foreign minister Qin Gang has been removed from office and replaced by his predecessor, Wang Yi.

In an announcement on Tuesday evening, state media gave no reason for Mr Qin’s removal but it comes after he dropped out of sight almost one month ago amid speculation over his personal affairs and political rivalries.

The ministry has provided no information about Mr Qin’s status 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 Mr Qin was a chief proponent.

Adding to the mystery around Mr Qin’s removal, it was approved at a meeting of the Standing Committee of China’s rubber-stamp legislature, the National People’s Congress, which usually gathers at the end of the month.

Mr Wang previously served as China’s top diplomat in his capacity as head of the party’s office of foreign affairs.

The shake-up in China’s diplomacy follows Washington sending US secretary of state Antony Blinken and other top serving and retired officials to Beijing in a bid to revive a relationship that is deeply riven over trade, human rights, technology, Taiwan and China’s other territorial claims.

Mr 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.

Earlier in his career, Mr Qin had served as foreign ministry spokesperson, when 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.

Mr 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 US 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 officials, including Premier Li Qiang last week, following up on visits by Mr Blinken and Treasury secretary Janet Yellen.

Former top diplomat Henry Kissinger, 100, who is revered in China for helping break the ice in relations in the early 1970s, also made a trip and was granted a meeting with Mr Xi.

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

“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,” Mr 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.”

Vedant Patel, US State Department deputy spokesman said: “It is up to China to decide who their foreign minister is.

“We will continue to engage with Foreign Minister Wang Yi and other Chinese officials and continue to believe that keeping lines of communication open are incredibly important.”

With its highly opaque political system abetted by strict controls over the media and civil society, it is difficult to gauge how Mr Xi and other Chinese leaders see the relationship at this point.

Mr 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 has made threats to attack the self-governing island democracy of Taiwan.

He has sternly rejected 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, Mr 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.”

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