Shortcuts / 01 August 2023

The downfall of China’s Foreign Minister

China’s foreign minister, Qin Gang, mysteriously disappeared from public view in June, and after a month of speculation, reports surfaced last week that he’d been removed from his job. Once a rising star in the Chinese Communist Party, the minister’s sudden downfall has raised many questions about doing business with the world’s second-biggest economy. So in this Squiz Shortcut, we take you through who Qin Gang is, why his disappearance matters, and what it says about China and their diplomatic relations with the rest of the world.

So this is weird…
Yep – it would be an enormous story if our own foreign minister, Penny Wong, disappeared for an entire month and then lost her job with no explanation. So the sudden disappearance and then ousting of Qin Gang has left a lot of people scratching their heads.

Who is this Qin Gang guy?
He’s 57yo, and he was appointed as China’s foreign minister in December last year. That appointment was notable because Qin was younger than a lot of his colleagues and was one of China’s youngest-ever foreign ministers. Qin was also handpicked by Chinese President Xi Jinping himself and there was talk that he could be a successor to Xi down the line. But that’s not on the cards anymore…

Where did Qin sit in the Chinese Communist Party hierarchy?
So the important thing to note is that China’s foreign minister doesn’t really have any decision-making power themselves – they’re seen as the chief overseas spokesperson for the President.

So he was kinda like China’s chief ambassador?
Yep – but it’s quite a high-profile job. Qin’s appointment was seen as an attempt by China to improve its relations with the United States. Qin was the former ambassador to the US, and it’s notable that one of his last meetings before his downfall was with the US Secretary of State, Antony Blinken.

What happened during that meeting?
It was a big deal – they talked for 7 hours and it was a major moment for unthawing frosty the US-China relationship. That was held between June 18-19, and Qin disappeared from public view a week after that.

And we don’t know why?
Nope. During the month of his disappearance, there was some talk about “health issues” keeping Qin out of the public eye. But then, when we found out at the end of July that Qin was being replaced, there was no official explanation for his disappearance and replacement.

So he’s basically evaporated into thin air?
Yep, and what’s even more strange is that China’s foreign ministry website has been scrubbed of any mention of him – he wasn’t even listed in the timeline of past foreign ministers. But he still holds the position of State Councillor, which is technically a bigger role than foreign minister. But China watchers think that he’s only in that role until a replacement can be found, and it’s only a matter of time…

So who has replaced Qin?
China has appointed a man named Wang Yi as the replacement foreign minister. Wang was actually Qin’s boss and he previously held the position of China’s foreign minister, so some experts say his appointment is an attempt at signalling continuity to the world.

And is that how the rest of the world sees it?
Not quite – a lot of the commentary from Western reports is that it shows just how unpredictable China’s internal politics are. And another question the saga has raised is about President Xi’s judgement. So if Qin was Xi’s star player, the fact that Xi has suddenly changed his mind makes it seem like he made a bad call in the first place.

Where does that leave the US-China relationship?
Well, the relationship between the 2 global superpowers was never going to depend on one man, but Qin’s appointment was meant to help mend it. So we’ll just have to wait and see whether his removal damages those ties.

When will we find out?
The big event to know about is that Xi could make a visit to the US in November. Managing that trip is now going to be the job of Wang Yi, Qin’s replacement. If Xi does go, it will be a big deal.

And aside from diplomacy, wouldn’t Qin’s ousting have ramifications for business in China?
It sure will. We’ve talked before about how China’s slowing economy is a big problem for the global economy. One of the main reasons for their economic slowdown is the fall in foreign investment, and Qin’s removal wouldn’t have boosted confidence.

Unpredictability is a huge turn-off for business…
That’s right, and we’ll see how it all plays out for China in the coming months.

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