Qin’s removal reveals a messy portrait of China - Hindustan Times
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Qin’s removal reveals a messy portrait of China

Jul 26, 2023 10:13 PM IST

China's foreign minister, Qin Gang, has been removed from his position and replaced by Wang Yi, sparking speculation about the reasons behind his removal

The standing committee of the National People’s Congress (NPCSC), China’s top legislature, on Tuesday, announced the removal of Qin Gang as the country’s foreign minister. The decision came during a previously unplanned and abruptly announced daylong meeting of the body. Conventionally, NPCSC meets on a bimonthly basis. Meeting dates and agenda are usually announced far in advance. This departure from set norms in a country where tradition and discipline are valued above all, and where small deviations and changes are all the signs one gets of upheavals within, has set off speculation.

China removed foreign minister Qin Gang and appointed Wang Yi (AP File) PREMIUM
China removed foreign minister Qin Gang and appointed Wang Yi (AP File)

Qin’s removal came after he had been absent from public view for a month. His last public meeting was on June 25. In his place, Wang Yi, who was serving as the director of the office of the Central Foreign Affairs Commission (CFAC), was appointed as foreign minister. This is a position that Wang vacated earlier this year, after a decade in office. In the past few weeks, Wang was filling in for Qin, as was evident in engagements during the Association of South East Asian Nations Regional Forum and East Asia Summit foreign ministers’ meeting in Jakarta.

NPCSC did not provide a formal explanation for the change in personnel. At one point during Qin’s absence in the past month, the Chinese foreign ministry did mention health concerns. However, those remarks were later expunged from the ministry’s website, with no subsequent details provided. This fuelled speculation about potential disciplinary violations or an alleged extramarital affair leading to Qin’s downfall. Such a development would have severe implications in the murky world of Chinese elite politics, particularly given Qin’s proximity to President Xi Jinping. Over the past decade, Qin has enjoyed a phenomenal rise through the Chinese foreign affairs apparatus. Moving from being a spokesperson, he served as the head of the foreign ministry’s protocol department from 2014-2017, working in close proximity with Xi to organise his overseas visits. This was followed by a three-year stint as vice foreign minister, before he was handpicked to be China’s ambassador to the US. In less than 18 months of serving in Washington, Qin was propelled to the top of the foreign ministry’s hierarchy to become China’s youngest foreign minister.

His sudden downfall owing to disciplinary issues, therefore, would likely be read by some as a setback for Xi’s power and stature. However, such an assessment might end up being an overreading of the situation. It is worth noting that although NPCSC announced Qin’s removal as foreign minister, he continues to retain his position as one of five State Councilors. This is a peculiar decision. If Qin’s downfall was related to serious disciplinary issues, whether related to matters of state or personal issues, it likely would have resulted in his removal from all posts followed by an investigation. Is his retention in the State Council a face-saving effort owing to his proximity to Xi? Or is it a sign that Qin’s removal as foreign minister was not due to displeasure with his work or disciplinary violations but rather owing to health limitations preventing him from meeting the demands of diplomacy? Another noteworthy development is that searches for Qin Gang’s name on the ministry of foreign affairs’ website are yielding no results after his removal as minister. There is clearly more to this than meets the eye at present.

The other side of this saga has been the appointment of Wang Yi as foreign minister. As noted above, Wang is the director of CFAC, which sits at the top of China’s foreign affairs system. The country’s new law on foreign relations codifies this, and limits the scope of the ministry of foreign affairs to merely “conducting foreign affairs”, undertaking “matters relating to diplomatic exchanges of party and state leaders with foreign leaders”, enhancing “guidance, coordination, management and service for international exchanges and cooperation conducted by other government departments and localities” and exercising “overall leadership over the work of Chinese diplomatic missions abroad.” Essentially, its functions are focussed on execution rather than strategy and policy making, which fall under the remit of CFAC. In this sense, Wang’s appointment as foreign minister might be a step down for him.

There were, of course, other potential candidates who could have taken the role, such as 59-year-old Liu Jianchao, who heads the Communist Party’s International Liaison Department; his 68-year-old predecessor Song Tao, who heads Taiwan affairs work at present; and 60-year-old vice foreign minister Ma Zhaoxu and 62-year-old vice minister Qi Yu, who is also the party secretary of the foreign ministry. In some of these cases, the change in appointment would require corresponding shifts in the party’s central committee to ensure alignment. Wang’s appointment, one could wager, is perhaps the least disruptive. It is also likely to be a stop-gap arrangement and is perhaps a product of the need to ensure the presence of a well-known commodity to lead diplomacy amid a particularly tumultuous geopolitical environment and hectic diplomatic calendar ahead, with Xi expected to travel for the Brazil, Russia, India, China, South Africa (Brics), G20 and Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit meetings, and China preparing to host the third Belt and Road forum.

Manoj Kewalramani is fellow, China Studies, The Takshashila Institution. The views expressed are personal

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