BEIJING – China’s sharp-tongued foreign minister, Qin Gang, was something of an avatar for nationalist Communist Party leader and President Xi Jinping, warning of “conflict and confrontation” with the U.S., the stakes of which could be the "future of humanity.”
Now, Qin has been dismissed from office in the biggest political tumult to strike China in a decade.
Qin’s departure was announced Tuesday after a month-long disappearance from public view, sparking rumors of personal scandals or friction within the top party echelons. He was absent from key meetings as the U.S. sent Secretary of State Antony Blinken and other officials to Beijing.
It also comes during economic challenges and poor relations with the United States and other nations that China relies on for economic development but is also seeking to push aside in its drive to overcome the Western-led economic order.
Ultimately, Qin's situation reflects back on Xi, who has concentrated power under his direct authority to a degree not seen since Mao Zedong in the 1960s. Xi was seen as backing the 57-year-old Qin's swift rise from ministry spokesperson to protocol chief — where he oversaw arrangements for Xi's overseas trips — to ambassador to the U.S. and then foreign minister.
“The real issue of the Qin affair is that it showed how poor Xi’s judgment was is in helicoptering Qin to the foreign minister post, and then took so long to act on his removal,” said Steve Tsang, director of the China Institute at the London University School of Oriental and African Studies and a longtime analyst of Chinese leadership dynamics.
"Xi is not losing control, but those in the party who are secretly against Xi must be drawing lessons on Xi’s weaknesses," Tsang said. Before Qin became an issue, Xi “showed decisiveness whether he’s right or not.”
"He has not shown that over the Qin affair, which is hugely embarrassing for him," Tsang said.
Qin’s predecessor, Wang Yi, has been appointed as caretaker minister. Wang currently heads the party's foreign affairs division overseen by Xi.
The party, not the government, dictates policy and the foreign minister is essentially a functionary. Yet, the position holds considerable prestige, and Qin's shared background with Xi as descendants of the founders of the People's Republic likely gave him a leg-up in the cut-throat world of the Chinese bureaucracy.
All mention of Qin had been deleted from the Foreign Ministry's website by Wednesday. However, he is still listed as a state councilor, a Cabinet-level position with various responsibilities, an indication that his political future is not completely doomed.
Neither Xi or any of his top aides has commented on Qin's fate and it's unclear whether it will have any serious impact on Xi, who has eliminated his political rivals by imprisonment or retirement and struck down term limits, allowing him to stay in power potentially for life.
Asked Wednesday about Qin's removal, Foreign Ministry spokesperson Mao Ning said only that she had no new information to release, and that the ministry website was being "updated according to relevant regulations."
“Regarding China-U.S. relations, we have a consistent position. We always view and develop relations with the U.S. in the principle of mutual respect, peaceful coexistence and win-win cooperation. The two countries always maintain dialogue and contact at various levels. This remains unchanged,” Mao said.