China’s missing minister: Qin Gang’s gone, but Xi Jinping looks weaker too

Qin Gang’s mysterious removal and disappearance is unsettling for China’s elite politics and Xi’s image of ‘stability’.

Qin gang xi jinping
Delegates including China's ex-Foreign Minister Qin Gang (front row, second from the right) applaud as China's President Xi Jinping arrives for the closing session of the National People's Congress at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing on March 13, 2023 [Noel Celis/Pool via Reuters]

The removal of Qin Gang, China’s youngest foreign minister several decades, and the 57-year-old’s mysterious month-long disappearance, have grabbed global headlines.

But while much of the speculation has focused on 57-year-old Qin and why he has been sacked – with records of his meetings as foreign minister erased from the Chinese foreign ministry website – this episode is about much more than a missing minister.

At its heart, this is about the unpredictability and opacity of China’s elite politics, the tumult that appears to have persisted despite President Xi Jinping’s supposed iron grip on the nation, and the consequences for senior Chinese politicians and foreign investors alike.

For decades, China watchers have been trying to design an analytical framework to help them understand the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) and its functioning. Yet the CCP’s lack of transparency has stymied their efforts for the most part.

The Qin mystery is the latest example.

Recently, Chinese President Xi Jinping ended the power-sharing model at the top that had prevailed during the tenures of his two predecessors, Jiang Zemin and Hu Jintao, and under which a collective leadership was in charge with a clear succession roadmap.

Xi’s unprecedented third term as party boss and president formally received the approval of the 20th Party Congress last year, from which he emerged more powerful than ever by placing loyalists in the party-state’s apex bodies – the Politburo, its Standing Committee and the State Council.

The view among many observers was that Xi’s consolidation of power – at least in the short term – signified that the pendulum of CCP politics had moved to a boring but more stable winner-takes-all model featuring fixed personnel lineups and consistent policy implementation.

Qin’s mysterious absence and downfall, following his meteoric rise, shows they were wrong.

At this year’s National People’s Congress, Qin assumed the important position of State Councillor, which ranks above regular cabinet ministers.

Xi knew Qin well from his time as chief of the president’s diplomatic protocol team, and the diplomat’s stints as ambassador to the United States and United Kingdom burnished his credentials.

He was Xi’s pick as State Councillor. And since no clear successor to Xi was anointed at the 20th Party Congress, Qin’s age advantage made him a potential candidate as heir-apparent, in the event that Xi should choose to groom someone as his successor.

Qin’s clout within the CCP leadership was also evident in the way he went about his role as foreign minister. After the Congress, it became apparent to the country’s leadership that China needed to repair relationship with major powers, especially the United States, which had imposed enormous economic, security and technology pressure upon China.

Qin did a pretty good job, helping Xi meet with US President Joe Biden in Bali, Indonesia, in November 2022. Both sides agreed to take concrete actions to put China-US relations back on track and continue strategic communication.

Although the momentum was later on disrupted by the mysterious balloon incident in February 2023, Qin’s team continued their effort by maintaining contacts with the United States. US Secretary of State Antony Blinken, whose original travel plan to China was cancelled due to the balloon incident, still managed to meet Qin in Beijing in June, one week before his disappearance.

Qin also tried to pivot away from the hardline “wolf-warrior” diplomacy that he had once been the face of. His team softened China’s stance on the Ukraine War by keeping some distance from Russia. He wrote a piece for The Washington Post, saying that the door to China-US relations would remain open and could not be closed.

Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian, a high-profile “wolf warrior”, was sidelined and moved out of the public eye after Qin became foreign minister. China’s relations with Europe also got a boost after French President Emmanuel Macron and European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen visited Beijing in April this year.

There was a clear link between Qin’s meteoric rise and Xi’s plan to ease geopolitical pressures and bring in more foreign investment and technology to boost China’s flagging economy.

So the abrupt disappearance is bound to have a far-reaching impact both within China and outside it. And it reveals that Xi’s command over the party had likely not ended factionalism within the CCP, which possibly played a part in Qin’s downfall.

It is unusual for Wang Yi, Qin’s predecessor aged 69, to replace Qin and become foreign minister again. This may reveal the top leadership’s worry about appointing the wrong person to this important position. After all, given the current turbulent international environment and China’s stagnating economy, any further personnel blunder may lead to political instability and intensify intra-Party power struggles over key positions and policy directions.

Yet it is also no secret Qin’s policy of building bridges with the West clashed with Wang Yi’s hardline strategy, and encountered sharp criticism from many of his colleagues even within the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

The Qin incident reveals the delicately wrapped life-or-death nature of Chinese politics, in which the political structure that supports Xi’s authority generates yes-men, yet seemingly disparate interests are always ready to come together to oust perceived threats.

The lack of transparency over Qin’s removal will also hurt foreign investors’ confidence in Beijing at a time the US and its allies in particular are trying to decouple the West’s economies from China’s.

If China’s foreign policy goes back to the “wolf warrior” mode, foreign executives may reassess their decisions about expanding businesses in China given the mounting geopolitical and supply chain risks.

In the past few months, especially following the end of Zero-COVID restrictions, China has been rolling out the red carpet to keep multinationals in the country, as many of them were diversifying their supply chains away from China.

When Tesla CEO Elon Musk visited Shanghai in May 2023, Qin told him that the Chinese government would continue to offer a friendly business environment to foreign companies. Qin assured Musk that China would continue its opening-up and market reforms in the future.

A Chinese idiom says that “tea turns cold when people move away”. With Qin gone, investors and the world at large don’t know whether his words still count.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.