Qin Gang was removed as China’s foreign minister by order of President Xi Jinping after a special meeting of the Standing Committee of National People’s Congress was held Tuesday. His profile on the foreign ministry website was deleted, and the news about his dismissal was censored on the Chinese social media platform Weibo – suggesting that he was politically purged for reasons we don’t fully understand.
The Chinese State media hasn’t explained Qin’s removal, and the foreign ministry has cited health reasons for his long disappearance.
The rumours about Qin’s affairs with Phoenix Television journalist Fu Xiaotian have yet to be backed by any convincing evidence, but the style of Qin’s dismissal will continue to give air to such rumours for a long time. It’s hard to believe that Qin was merely dismissed because of health concerns because if that was the case, the Chinese government would have already announced it.
The information about the top leadership is sensitive—Qin was a member of the Central Committee of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) and a State Councillor—which can explain the secrecy shrouding the former foreign minister’s dismissal from office.
Qin’s title as the State Councillor is kept intact, which has two implications — either the investigation against him was concluded with dismissal being the disciplinary action, or the inquiry is still underway. If Qin is removed as the State Councillor, which would be during the National People’s Congress (NPC) session, it would raise more questions about his fate.
In 2015, Qin took over the role of Assistant Minister of Foreign Affairs and Director of the Protocol Department from Zhang Kunsheng, who was dismissed from his position. Zhang was later sacked for corruption, but no formal charges were ever brought against him. At the time, Zhang became the most senior official to be dismissed under Xi’s anti-corruption campaign.
Qin’s meteoric rise after that has surprised many. But it wouldn’t be a stretch to suggest that he may have made some enemies in the meantime. Zhang’s dismissal gives us some hints about it.
Censors on social media
When Xi’s presidential decree removing Qin hit the news, the announcement began trending on Chinese search engines and social media platforms. Chinese censors began removing details about Qin, which furthered the theory about him being politically purged for an unknown reason.
‘Qin Gang was removed from the position of a foreign minister’ was the number one trend on the search engine Baidu. Trending number two was: ‘Wang Yi was appointed Foreign Minister, while Qin Gang was dismissed’.
But on Weibo, the hashtags ‘Qin Gang was removed from his post as Foreign Minister’ and ‘Qin Gang removed as Minister of Foreign Affairs’ was censored.
Upon searching both the hashtags, a notice was displayed—‘In accordance with relevant laws, regulations and policies, the content of this topic is not displayed’. The censoring suggests that China doesn’t want its citizens to discuss Qin’s dismissal, possibly because the matter is far more complex than a health issue.
“They could engineer any situation – he has a terminal case of cancer or whatever – but few people will believe this excuse,” said veteran China watcher Willy Wo-Lap Lam from Hong Kong in an interview with The Sydney Morning Herald.
A Machiavellian play
Just like Qin, Zhang’s biography and other ministerial work were entirely scrubbed from the Chinese foreign ministry’s website at the time of his dismissal. One possibility is that Qin’s fate may end much like Zhang’s, as he will be slowly sidelined on vague charges.
Other diplomats who were either promoted or moved to a different department didn’t have their foreign ministry resumes and profiles removed in such a fashion. Outspoken diplomat Zhao Lijian, who was reassigned as the deputy head of the Department of Boundary and Ocean Affairs within the foreign ministry – a demotion for an ex-foreign ministry spokesperson – still has his profile available on the foreign ministry’s website.
Qin’s biographical profile remains available on the State Council’s website since he is still a State Councillor. But he may be removed from that post as well during the next NPC session, and, by then, we may potentially know if he was formally investigated on specific charges.
Wang Yi’s reappointment signals a sense of continuity as the process of selecting the next foreign minister will start during the NPC session. For now, who will take on the role remains open to speculation.
Abrupt removal of senior figures is a feature of the CCP, going back to Mao Zedong’s infamous purges when a political figure fell out of favour. We haven’t seen such abrupt dismissals since the Bo Xilai scandal.
Qin’s dismissal has made him the shortest-serving foreign minister in the history of the People’s Republic of China. His track record as a foreign minister doesn’t appear stellar as China’s relations with Europe – excluding France – have taken a nosedive, and the relations with the US have gone through another rough patch in the past months.
His dismissal is likely to be hushed away into the dustbin of CCP’s history, with little details emerging about why he was removed. Even when Qin is finally removed from the post of State Councillor in the coming months, we may not see a reasonable explanation for his dismissal. The Qin Gang saga only tells us that Xi’s China is a black box willing to preserve information about the internal process and the dialogue within the party leadership, even if it results in the circulation of the most egregious rumours online.
Almost like the Machiavellian play called Zhongnanhai, this will keep us all on the edge of our seats for a long time.
The author is a columnist and a freelance journalist. He was previously a China media journalist at the BBC World Service. He is currently a MOFA Taiwan Fellow based in Taipei and tweets @aadilbrar. Views are personal.
(Edited by Ratan Priya)