China is erasing mention of its former foreign minister. But it still hasn’t said why

Analysis by Simone McCarthy

Hong Kong CNN  —  Five weeks ago, the world watched as China’s Foreign Minister Qin Gang met US Secretary of State Antony Blinken in Beijing for high stakes talks between the two powers.

But anyone looking for reference to that important event on the website of China’s Foreign Ministry will be disappointed, as that meeting – and all of Qin’s activities as Foreign Minister – has been erased from the record following a head-spinning leadership shake-up Tuesday that saw Qin abruptly replaced by his predecessor Wang Yi.

The shock ouster, approved by a top body within China’s rubber-stamp legislature, had followed weeks of questions and speculation about Qin’s fate after he disappeared from public view in late June, without a clear explanation.

The latest twist in the saga – the complete erasure of Qin’s swift, six-month tenure as Foreign Minister and his replacement by Wang, who served in that post for roughly a decade before a promotion late last year – only serves to deepen the mystery.

Qin’s whereabouts, the reason for his removal, and his ultimate fate as a member of China’s Communist Party all remain unknown.

Unanswered questions about official decision-making are standard in China, where the political system is notoriously opaque and has only become more so under Chinese leader Xi Jinping.

Senior Chinese officials have disappeared from public view in the past only to turn up months later in announcements they’ve been under secret disciplinary investigation.

But the circumstances that have played out in recent weeks surrounding Qin – widely seen as a trusted aide of Xi and one of China’s most recognizable officials as the face of its foreign policy and a former ambassador to the US – has brought those features of China’s political system into the global spotlight.

“The lack of transparency is already a well known issue for the Chinese bureaucracy. And decisions are fine until they are not. And when they are not, it usually creates much bigger trouble for the system,” said Yun Sun, director of the China Program at the Washington-based think tank Stimson Center.

“The swift replacement does not reflect well on Xi for sure. At the minimum, people will be questioning what went wrong and made the replacement necessary. But it also suggests that the cause must be grave for (Qin) to be removed,” she added.

Meanwhile, the timing of the episode, as China has been campaigning to present its leadership as an appealing alternative to that of the West, only ups the potentially damaging optics.

“Qin’s removal will reinforce perceptions abroad that the Communist Party is an opaque and unreliable diplomatic partner … (and) do no favors for Beijing’s international efforts to portray its governance system as worthy of praise and emulation,” said Neil Thomas, a fellow for Chinese Politics at Asia Society Policy Institute’s Center for China Analysis.

What this means for China, and Xi

Qin’s appointment to the post of Foreign Minister last year over more experienced candidates was seen as a sign of deep trust bestowed on him by Xi, who stacked China’s leadership with his close allies as he consolidated power last year while entering a norm-breaking third term as leader.

“It is widely believed that Xi has a very small inner circle of people that he consults, and on top of that is over confident and makes decisions based on his own instincts,” said Bonnie Glaser, managing director of the German Marshall Fund’s Indo-Pacific program.

“Qin is his protege, and therefore this will necessarily reflect badly on Xi. However, that doesn’t mean that this episode will pose a challenge to his power,” she said.

As the news of the leadership changes were flashed by Chinese state media Tuesday evening, China’s vast apparatus for controlling public discussion around political and social events moved into gear.

Social media hashtags relating to Qin’s removal were censored on the popular Chinese social media app Weibo, including at least one that aimed to evade censors by discussing the decision under a hashtag about a television show set around the time of China’s ancient Qin dynasty.

Meanwhile, hashtags about Wang’s appointment remained live on the platform Wednesday morning, but were only showing posts from verified accounts, largely state media or government agencies, without any user generated comments visible.

“It is likely that the official media outlets will propagate the idea that the top leadership is wise in removing a senior official who had been trusted and henceforth was found making mistakes,” said Li Mingjiang, an associate professor of international relations at Singapore’s Nanyang Technological University.

Depending on what further information comes about Qin’s circumstances, Chinese media “can always spin around to say that this is an example of the Party’s determination to take strict disciplinary actions whenever a senior official is found of doing things wrong,” he added.

It remains unclear when, or if, further information will be released about the reasons for Qin’s removal, and that void in information has been filled with rampant rumor and speculation.

When asked earlier this month about why Qin had missed a diplomatic gathering, a ministry spokesperson cited “health reasons.”

Qin for now appears to have retained his domestic-facing, high-level administrative post as State Councilor.

But observers of elite Chinese politics say that the silence around why he has been replaced and his erasure from the ministry website point to political reasons, which could become clear in coming months if there is an official announcement of an investigation against him.

“Beijing is reserving the flexibility to decide on their stories later. I don’t think an announcement about what happened will happen anytime soon. Beijing will wait till people almost forgot about it to avoid more attention,” said Sun in Washington.

‘Safe hands’

The Foreign Ministry shake-up comes at a particularly sensitive time in China’s international relations. Beijing is seeking to stabilize fractious relations with the United States and woo back a Europe that has been increasingly suspicious of China’s close ties to Russia as it wages war on Ukraine.

And while Qin’s mysterious disappearance and ousting makes for awkward international optics, it also places China’s foreign policy back in the hands of a seasoned veteran who filled the role from 2013 to 2022.

When asked about Qin and Wang in a press briefing Tuesday, American diplomat Blinken said the US would engage with “whoever the relevant Chinese counterparts” are in order to manage the US-China relationship.

“I’ve also known Wang Yi for more than a decade. I’ve met with him repeatedly in my current capacity as Secretary of State and including just recently in Jakarta and I anticipate being able to work well with him as we have in the past,” Blinken said, noting that he “wished (Qin) well.”

Wang in recent years has been known for his combative “wolf warrior” stance, but has also been seen as a smooth operator, regularly dispatched to tackle China’s thorniest diplomatic issues and meet with close allies, including a February trip to Moscow to meet with Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Kept on by Xi despite having reached the standard retirement age during a five-yearly leadership reshuffle last year, he was promoted at that time to the role of China’s top diplomat, overseeing the foreign affairs arm of the ruling Communist Party (a separate and distinct body from that of the government foreign ministry).

It appears he’ll now fill that post and his old one – an arrangement that Asia Society’s Thomas suggests could be temporary while also allowing Wang to navigate a period of months that could see Xi visit the US in November for an economic summit.

His appointment, however, overlooks an ample bench of potential candidates, according to Victor Shih, director of the University of California San Diego’s 21st Century China Center, which “suggests that the top leadership is unsure of a good replacement and opted for a safe option and a pair of steady hands.”

“This desire might give us a hint of what exactly happened to Qin Gang,” he said.

CNN’s Beijing bureau contributed to this report.

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