Palace Intrigue in Beijing

Jul 27, 2023

So, what are we to make of the dramatic dismissal of China’s foreign minister? In one sense, the brief July 25 announcement by the Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress—“Qin Gang was removed from the post of foreign minister”—hardly came as a surprise following 30 days of radio silence about China’s second-ranked foreign affairs official. But that doesn’t take away the deeper meaning of this development—namely, the important questions it raises about Chinese governance, with profound implications for China’s global leadership aspirations and increasingly muscular geostrategic objectives.

Over the years, we’ve all gotten used to the kabuki-like machinations of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). Qin Gang is hardly the first senior official to disappear into thin air, and he probably won’t be the last. Mao’s heir apparent, Lin Biao died in a mysterious plane crash in 1971. Alibaba’s Jack Ma only recently resurfaced in China nearly three years after delivering a notorious speech in October 2020. Even Xi Jinping, himself, was nowhere to be found for two weeks in late 2012, just before his ascendancy to Party Secretary in November of that year. The tales of Chinese palace intrigue go on and on, including the post-Mao succession battle with the notorious Gang of Four and, of course, the more recent strange circumstances surrounding the very public removal of Xi’s predecessor, Hu Jintao, from the 20th Party Congress last November.

With that history, it’s tempting to shrug your shoulders and lump the downfall of Qin Gang with all the other equally opaque incidents of Chinese leadership shuffling—in effect, treating this dismissal as standard, CCP operating procedure. Maybe not. For starters, he was Xi Jinping’s anointed star, rising extremely quickly through the ranks including high-profile assignments as Chinese ambassador to the US, followed by elevation to the State Council, the CCP’s Central Committee, and a now short-lived seven-month stint as Foreign Minister.

Moreover, at a meeting with China’s new premier, Li Qiang, that I attended in Beijing in late March as part of the China Development Forum, Qin was seated prominently next to Premier Li. He was the only other senior official in that capacity. I and others present at this meeting took this as an important signal of Qin’s key role in the government’s push to reconnect with the foreign business community as part of China’s new efforts at “higher level reform and opening up.” As former ambassador to the United States, Qin had a special interest in the US-China relationship, noting privately to me in a brief exchange after that meeting in March that “a rebuilding of trust was essential” for conflict resolution. He apparently made that same point in June as one of two senior officials who spent the most time with US Secretary of State Antony Blinken during his recent visit to Beijing—the other being Wang Yi, senior CCP diplomat and now also China’s new interim foreign minister. In other words, Qin was very special, clearly a man on the move in Chinese leadership circles.

Qin Gang’s abrupt exit from such a steep upward trajectory is highly unusual in any system, including China. Notwithstanding all the rumors circulating on social media of Qin’s alleged extramarital exploits that some are offering as justification for his demise, it’s not as if that information wasn’t heavily circulated well in advance of his 30-day disappearance. In the end, the sudden conclusion of this tale, along with the scramble to purge all references to Qin from CCP websites, says as much about Qin’s “rabbi”—namely, Xi Jinping—as it does about the former foreign minister.

Bottom line for me: Qin Gang’s dismissal raises new questions about Xi’s leadership style that are not lost on the broader global community. Amid the pressures of a weak post-zero-covid economy, high youth unemployment, unsettled private sector sentiment, an ongoing superpower conflict with the United States, and lingering risks of an unlimited partnership with Russia, the messy dismissal of Qin Gang further taints the global image of China’s great power aspirations. All this may well have a corrosive impact on Xi’s signature political commitment, the Chinese Dream. The swift demise of Qin Gang could be a very big deal.

You can follow me on Twitter @SRoach_econ

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