After Chinese leader Xi Jinping catapulted Qin Gang to the post of foreign minister in December, Qin picked up a blistering pace, meeting with dozens of foreign officials as he pressed Beijing’s agenda in a world divided and torn by war.
Then Qin fell silent.
On Monday, he had not made a public appearance for three weeks. His last reported engagements date back to June 25, when he spoke with diplomats from Vietnam, Russia and Sri Lanka. He was recently due to meet the European Union’s foreign policy chief in Beijing, but China canceled the visit. Last week, he missed a meeting of Southeast Asian countries in Jakarta, Indonesia, to which China was invited.
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Outside of China, Qin’s long absence has sparked internet speculation about his health and status. Sudden disappearances of senior Chinese officials from public life are often seen as potential signs of unrest. Mystery seeped into conversations between diplomats and political insiders in the Chinese capital.
The Chinese government acknowledged last week that Qin, 57, would skip the Jakarta meeting, citing health reasons, but otherwise declined to give details or updates. In Beijing, reporters repeatedly asked the Foreign Ministry, including on Monday, questions such as when Qin would return to work, only to be told officials had “no information” to provide.
The secrecy on the part of the government has only fueled speculation about Qin’s absence, threatening to distract from China’s efforts to bolster its diplomacy to ease tensions with Western powers and woo Asian neighbors.
The episode “is embarrassing and troubling for Chinese diplomats because of the uncertainty it injects into a tightly controlled system,” said Daniel R. Russel, a former senior US diplomat currently at the Asia Society Policy Institute. . “For foreign diplomats, this raises even more questions about the bureaucratic weight of the Chinese Foreign Ministry.”
The secrecy surrounding the personal lives and health of senior officials is rooted in the Chinese Communist Party. In one of the most notable and as yet unexplained absences of recent times, Xi abruptly disappeared from public view for two weeks shortly before taking power in 2012, missing a meeting with the Secretary of State of time, Hillary Clinton.
It remains entirely plausible that Qin fell ill and is recovering. Even so, the episode would be a telling example of how the party’s aversion to sharing bad news can undermine its efforts to control the narrative.
“Secrecy is the mode of operation chosen because for the Chinese Communist Party, information is a weapon,” said Willy Wo-Lap Lam, senior fellow at the Jamestown Foundation, a research institute in Washington.
“But in this case, the mystery surrounding such an important official – the foreign minister – is mind-boggling,” he said.
If it turns out that Qin somehow clashes with the Communist Party leadership, it could also harm Xi, who has used his dominance to accelerate Qin’s rise to power and a cohort of other loyalist officials, Lam said.
“Qin Gang was an official who, we like to say, took a helicopter ride to the top,” Lam said.
Qin was named China’s ambassador to Washington in July 2021 and, after just 17 months, was promoted to foreign minister, a rapid rise that marked him out as one of Xi’s trusted lieutenants.
Prior to that, Qin served as a Foreign Ministry spokesman – known for his acerbic beards – and as a senior protocol officer who arranged Chinese leaders’ trips abroad, a role that gave Qin the opportunity to work closely with Xi.
As foreign minister, Qin was tasked with implementing the Chinese leader’s vision of Beijing as an increasingly confident global power. In June, he met for five and a half hours with Secretary of State Antony Blinken during the US official’s visit to Beijing as the two nations sought to ease tensions.
Then Qin skipped the Southeast Asia meeting last week, with China sending Wang Yi, an official who ranks above Qin in the party hierarchy, in his place.
As questions have grown over Qin’s prolonged absence, overseas Chinese commentators have offered theories that an affair with a TV personality could be to blame for his troubles, and speculation is brewing. become big news in Taiwan.
Asked about the rumors on Monday, Mao Ning, a Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson, said, “I have no understanding of the issue you raised.”
Despite Beijing’s reluctance, speculation is also spreading among Chinese officials, said Deng Yuwen, a former Communist Party newspaper editor and now a US news commentator. Those officials will be watching to see if Qin reappears or if Beijing releases more details about him, Deng said.
“Even if he has a medical condition, they might find a way to get him out, but they haven’t done that yet,” Deng said. “If the outside world is speculating about Qin Gang, then naturally many people inside the system are also wondering.”
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