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What Happened to China’s Foreign Minister? Beijing Won’t Say

By Belal Awad · July 26, 2023

In brief…

  • China's foreign minister Qin Gang was suddenly removed from his post sparking speculation.
  • China expert Ian Johnson suggests the reason may be political infighting or a fallout with high-ranking officials.
  • Qin's temporary replacement, Wang Yi, aims to stabilize foreign policy temporarily before a new foreign minister is appointed next spring.
  • The incident is one more in a series of challenges faced by China's leader, Xi Jinping over the last year.
Former Chinese Foreign Minister Qin Gang  Chinese Govt. POOL/Public Domain

Chinese Foreign Minister Qin Gang was abruptly removed from his post, four weeks since his last public appearance, sparking widespread speculation over the power dynamics that rule Beijing. The terse one-sentence statement announcing his removal has left many questions unanswered and tongues wagging.

Ian Johnson, Senior Fellow on China studies at the Council on Foreign Relations, told BBC, “Clearly [Qin Gang] ran into some political difficulty.” Johnson dismissed rumours of an extramarital affair as cause for the disappearance, saying that if this were the reason, it would be known by now. “I don’t think at that level in Chinese politics that there are too many secrets. I think there must have been some other trigger that happened in the past couple of months that caused him to fall out of favor. And I think that’s really the interesting thing.” The real cause, said Johnson, may be rooted in political infighting or a fallout with other high-ranking officials.

Qin’s replacement, Wang Yi, a seasoned diplomat, who previously held the foreign minister’s post from 2013 to 2022, is also part of the story. Johnson describes Wang as a “fireman” or “caretaker” sent in to stabilize Chinese foreign policy amid the upheaval. He predicts a new minister will likely be appointed by next spring, allowing Wang to return to his more senior post within the Communist Party. Johnson also speculates tha tensions between Qin Gang and Wang Yi, who was minister before Qin took the job, may have added to the mystery: “ I think it’s it’s possible that they didn’t get along, or that the knives were out for Qin because he had been promoted very quickly. He was relatively young for his position and… It was a pretty fast rise. Clearly, he was [President] Xi Jinping’s person.”

The Qin Gang incident is the latest in a string of public challenges Xi Jinping has faced over the last year - from unpopular COVID-19 quarantines to a flagging economy. China expert Johnson believes there’s more than meets the eye in all of this, raising the possibility of a power struggle or some other crisis playing out behind the scenes. “There’s something going on,” Johnson said.