China Ousts Missing Foreign Minister
Beijing officially replaced Qin Gang this week, but it’s not likely to shake the system.
Welcome to Foreign Policy’s China Brief.
Welcome to Foreign Policy’s China Brief.
The highlights this week: China officially removes Qin Gang from the foreign minister post, former U.S. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger is fêted in Beijing, and a U.S. pilot faces extradition back home after allegations that he trained Chinese pilots.
China Officially Removes Foreign Minister
Chinese Foreign Minister Qin Gang, who disappeared from public view more than a month ago, was officially removed from his post on Tuesday in a brief announcement. Qin, who was previously China’s ambassador to the United States, only took the position in January; his replacement (likely temporary) will be his boss, Wang Yi, who was the foreign minister until his promotion into the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) Politburo last year.
With no investigation announced, it is faintly possible that Qin may end up shoved into an insignificant position, as happened to outspoken Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokesperson Zhao Lijian last year for unknown reasons.
But there are indications that Qin is in a lot more trouble than that. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs erased references to him from its website on Tuesday. The ministry’s digital record for the first half of 2023 is now one long list of what China’s deputy foreign ministers have done. As of writing, Qin’s name remained on some documents on foreign-language webpages, but searching for his name in Chinese returned no result. In recent days, foreign media asked questions about Qin at press conferences, receiving nonanswers; those too have been removed from the record.
The suddenness of Qin’s removal—even if normal in a political system like China’s—may indicate that he was swept into shuanggui, China’s extrajudicial interrogation system for CCP members who are deemed politically suspect. In that case, he would be completely unreachable, fueling the fear and uncertainty spread in the last month among his subordinates.
Removing a figure such as Qin is a questionable decision. Trying to signal continuity to foreign partners by reappointing Wang as foreign minister makes no sense. Beijing has now reminded these partners that not only can Chinese officials disappear at any minute, but the government will also pretend they never existed. Any achievements or discussions with Qin during his monthslong tenure as foreign minister now amount to nothing.
So what did Qin do? As I wrote last week, an affair—as is rumored—isn’t enough to lead to this kind of downfall in China. At this point, it seems as if a health problem can be ruled out. My best guess is that Qin’s time in the United States (and the United Kingdom before that) left him vulnerable to accusations that he was compromised by foreign intelligence agencies—a major CCP fear since Beijing discovered the extent of CIA penetration in China before 2010. And if that’s the case, it will make U.S.-China relations even worse.
While dramatic, Qin’s disappearance isn’t an earth-shattering event. He wasn’t a major power player, and is only the latest in a long list of people targeted by Chinese President Xi Jinping. In China, the minister of foreign affairs is an important position but not the top one. It’s not even the highest diplomatic position—that’s the job that Wang holds, the director of the Office of the Central Foreign Affairs Commission. In the CCP-led system, a party role inevitably tops a government one.
Qin might have been promoted to that role in time, as with his predecessors—but he likely rose as an effective functionary, rather than for his skill in fighting internal party battles. Some analysts have claimed that Qin was an unusual favorite of Xi, and that he owed his promotion in part to his wife, who successfully courted Xi’s wife with gifts. But Qin’s promotion wasn’t particularly rapid; he held important positions for some time, gradually moving up the ranks. And there were always people on his tail ready to take his job.
There is a strange intimacy at the top levels of the CCP. Although China’s top officials don’t share physical space the same way they might have in the 1950s (a habit inherited from the Soviet Union), families still often end up living very close to one other, with spouses playing a political role that is hard to read from the outside. When big party meetings happen in Beijing, the former palace complexes of Zhongnanhai and Diaoyutai, where the leadership lives and their guests stay, sometimes get so crowded that visiting senior officials end up bunking together for the week.
Qin may now be finding out the paradox of that intimacy: that the same people one mingles with are often the ones to quickly condemn someone when they fall, for fear of being dragged down with them. The end of Qin’s career—and quite likely his freedom—won’t shake the CCP. But it should be a reminder of just how fraught the party’s internal politics are, and why foreign officials or businesspeople investing time and effort in any single Chinese official is so risky.
What We’re Following
Kissinger’s Beijing trip. Former U.S. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, a centenarian, visited Beijing last week—after more than 100 such trips—to fêting from the Chinese government. At this point, Kissinger plays little role in backdoor diplomacy, but it’s possible the Chinese government overrates his influence. Retired officials and party elders play a strong role in CCP politics, leading Chinese diplomats to court their overseas counterparts. It’s likely no coincidence that figures of past prominence, from former German Chancellor Gerhard Schröder to former Australian Prime Minister Paul Keating, have become ardent defenders of Beijing.
However, Kissinger is a useful status booster within China, thanks to his mythmaking both there and in the United States. For example, in 2011, aspiring CCP star Bo Xilai brought Kissinger to Chongqing, where Bo was then a party chief building his personality cult after taking over local criminal networks. Bo had no formal role in foreign affairs; he wanted Kissinger to give a boost to his own public status in China by association—and Kissinger duly obliged.
Bo fell from power the next year, upending the careers of many of his supporters. Of course, Kissinger was untouched, reflecting another reason that he remains a useful figure for Chinese politicians: He is associated with great figures of the past, such as Mao Zedong, and he is also politically safe. For Kissinger, authoritarian governments have always been made up of people to do business with, whether officially or privately.
U.S. pilot faces extradition. A former U.S. Marine Corps pilot is trying to fight extradition from Australia to the United States, where he faces trial on a host of charges including money laundering and conspiracy. Daniel Duggan, who was indicted in 2017, stands accused of helping train Chinese pilots at a flight school in South Africa, but he says he was just training civilians; the United States says he knowingly broke the rules. He has been held in an Australian prison since last October.
Duggan’s team, now seeking a stay of extradition, argues that he was “lured” to Australia—where he is now a citizen—so that he would be extradited. This novel defense is unlikely to work, but if it is true, it could indicate how much tougher the United States has gotten when it comes to contact with the Chinese military, fairly or not. Deals that people could get away with in the 2000s are now off the table, especially when it comes to security.
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Beijing courts private business. On Monday, a CCP Politburo meeting on the economy promised steady growth and emphasized employment but delivered little substantial information. China seems unwilling or unable to commit to a stimulus plan as substantial as the one after the 2008 financial crisis. It’s still unclear how bad the economic figures are; last week, a rapidly deleted article by a Peking University professor suggested that if people not actively seeking work were counted, China’s true youth unemployment figure would be 46.5 percent.
China’s government is trying to send the message that it’s open to the private sector, even while it insists on strict CCP control for private enterprise. The past week has seen official promises to promote private investment through more flexible regulation, but after a decade of tightened control, it’s very difficult for officials to let go. Furthermore, so many big-name businesses have fallen in recent years that China’s economic elite are extremely cautious of the regime.
Seed hunters. A new team from the Central Commission on Disciplinary Inspection, the CCP’s powerful internal security service, is specifically targeting corruption around seeds and grain. Food security has been a concern in China for decades, and Xi seems to have a mild obsession with the issue, from his so-called clean plates campaign against food waste in 2020 to repeated emphasis on the topic in speeches.
The food security issue is particularly salient right now because China imports heavily from Ukraine, where Russia just upended a critical grain deal. Chinese determination to ensure domestic production could cause problems with trade with the United States, where China now makes up about 16 percent of the agricultural export market. Chinese espionage has also targeted U.S. agricultural technology in the past.
James Palmer is a deputy editor at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @BeijingPalmer
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