China Watch: Implications of Qin Gang’s Removal

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SUMMARY: This is a speculative assessment on the potential implications of and possible reasons for the dismissal of former PRC Foreign Minister Qin Gang on 25 July, after his mysterious absence from public view for 30 days.  Qin’s dismissal was highly unusual and may be driven by national security concerns.  Qin’s departure will not change China’s foreign policy objectives, but depending on the seriousness of his transgressions, Xi may demand broader investigations into diplomats who have worked closely with Qin.  Such a “housecleaning” effort would have a chilling effect on the foreign ministry and is likely to impede China’s diplomatic operations. 

Beijing will continue to pursue its foreign policy objectives, including seeking to improve ties with the US and Europe, despite Qin Gang’s departure.  Politburo member Wang Yi, China’s top foreign policy official, replaced Qin on 25 July as foreign minister, indicating that Xi wants continuity and stability in China’s foreign policy.  Wang wasforeign ministerfrom 2013 to 2022 and will continue to push high-level contacts between China and the US, with the goal of a Biden-Xi meeting in November 2023 or earlier.

  • Although the reasons for Qin’s dismissal are not known, there are no indications that Xi dismissed Qin because he was unhappy with his performance.  Xi had handpicked Qin to become foreign minister, and the two reportedly had a good relationship.  China observers generally credit Qin for his efforts to improve China’s relations with the West and its standing in the Global South. 
  • It is unlikely that factional rivalry led to Qin’s dismissal because of Xi’s political dominance.  Xi almost certainly made the decision to dismiss Qin. 
  • The PRC foreign ministry has removed all references to Qin on its website.  This move suggests that Qin is suspected of a serious offense and that his departure is not health related.  For now, Qin retains his title as State Councilor, suggesting that the investigation is ongoing and a final decision on Qin’s punishment has not been made.

Qin’s removal may be due to national security reasons rather than corruption, given his sudden disappearance and the eerie radio silence that followed.  Overseas Chinese-language media outlets have speculated that Qin’s alleged mistress, a prominent Chinese TV journalist, was arrested for suspected espionage.  These allegations have not been corroborated.  Given Qin’s career ambitions, it would have been risky to have an extramarital affair with a well-known journalist, especially when he was China’s ambassador to the US, as alleged in social media posts.  

  • It is possible that Qin’s former postings to the West came back to haunt him, since PRC security officials are highly suspicious of potential operations by foreign intelligence agencies against PRC diplomats  overseas.  Qin would have gone through rigorous counterintelligence vetting before each major promotion, but new information could have come to light since then to force Beijing to reinvestigate Qin.
  • Qin has had four overseas assignments , three in the UK and one in the US.  Qin served in the PRC Embassy in London from 1995 to 1999, 2002 to 2005, and 2010 to 2011.  He was China’s ambassador to Washington from 2021 until his promotion to foreign minister in December 2022.
  • Corruption allegations are less likely because the foreign ministry generally has fewer opportunities for lucrative financial deals. 

Depending on the seriousness of Qin’s transgressions, diplomats with whom he has worked closely may come under scrutiny, which is likely to impede China’s diplomatic operations.  If Xi orders a broader investigation into the foreign ministry, diplomats who specialize in European or North American affairs are likely to be disproportionately affected because those were the regions in which Qin worked.  The opaqueness surrounding Qin’s disappearance and dismissal undercuts Beijing’s recent diplomatic charm offensive to portray China as open, global, and non-threatening.