BEIJING, Aug 1 (Reuters) – Hours after China’s top lawmaker called a special meeting last week to remove Foreign Minister Qin Gang, pictures and mentions of the 57-year-old began disappearing from his former ministry’s website.
While some of that information resurfaced days later, Qin is not on the website’s list of “former ministers,” and a search for his name turns up: “Sorry, Qin Gang not found.”
In fact, he hasn’t been seen in public for over a month.
The State Department’s brief explanation weeks ago that this was due to health reasons, a remark later removed from official transcripts, has failed to stem a whirlwind of speculation, not only about his fate but about how the whole saga reflects the man who supported his meteoric rise. stand up, President Xi Jinping.
China appointed veteran diplomat Wang Yi to replace Qin, but gave few further clues as to the reason for the change.
Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Mao Ning said Thursday that Beijing will release information in due course regarding Qin and opposes “malicious hype.”
She was responding to a reporter who asked about transparency surrounding Qin’s removal, one of more than 25 questions mentioned by Qin at press briefings in recent days that the ministry has avoided.
WHIRLS OF SPECULATION
China’s Foreign Ministry and State Council Information Office, which handles media inquiries on behalf of the party and government, did not immediately respond to requests for comment for this story.
Qin’s unusually long and unexplained absence, his suddenly short-lived tenure, as well as other odd occurrences such as the ministry’s website, mean speculation will continue to swirl.
“The truth will eventually come out – it usually does in China, although sometimes it takes months or years – but the way he was dismissed makes it unlikely that it was for health reasons,” said Ian Johnson, senior fellow for China -studies at the Council for Foreign Relations.
Beijing-based political analyst Wu Qiang said he could “almost certainly rule out health as the real cause”. If so, the state could have appointed a deputy to fill in for him instead of officially removing him, Wu said.
Qin lasted just under half a year in the role after becoming one of the country’s youngest foreign ministers in December 2022, a position with a five-year term.
There are precedents for officials disappearing and being scrubbed from the collective memory in China.
Industry Minister Xiao Yaqing disappeared for nearly a month last year before it was revealed he was being investigated for corruption.
The Foreign Ministry removed all online traces of its former chief protocol officer Zhang Kunsheng, who was found guilty of corruption and using his position of power to obtain sex in 2016.
Such erasures go back decades in China.
A government-commissioned painting depicting the historic moment when Mao Zedong stood atop the Tiananmen Gate to announce the founding of the People’s Republic was altered three times between 1955 and 1972 to delete officials who subsequently fell into dispute with Mao.
But other observers say that in Qin’s case it is far from clear cut.
The National People’s Congress Standing Committee, which met on Tuesday, did not remove Qin’s second title of state councilor, a cabinet member ranking higher than a minister, despite having the power to do so, experts said.
And despite the omissions from the State Department’s website, a portrait of the former US envoy remained prominently displayed on the wall of the Chinese embassy in Washington on Thursday, according to a Reuters witness.
Analysts also point out that Qin would have gone through a rigorous assessment process to take the role just months ago.
Communist Party rules say leaders are investigated based on their ideologies, work performance and adherence to party discipline, while also having to declare details about their family, including whether they have lived abroad and what assets they have.
Since coming to power in 2012, Xi has introduced a series of anti-corruption rules and enforced party discipline in an effort to tackle corruption in ways that analysts say have consolidated members’ loyalty to him.
But this also raises the stakes for Xi if Qin’s dismissal is about more than just health, especially given that his meteoric rise through the ranks has been partly attributed to his closeness to the president.
Qin came to Xi’s attention when he served as chief of protocol during Xi’s first term, a job that would give him direct access to Xi when the latter meets with foreign leaders.
He then made a triple jump from protocol director to US ambassador and then to foreign minister and cabinet member in five years, bullet train speed by China’s standards.
The final leadership line-up for Xi’s unprecedented third term, unveiled earlier this year, consisted mainly of officials he worked with before and trusts, analysts say.
Xi ditched a traditional process of allowing current and retired top leaders to vote on potential candidates before finalizing a list that a wider group of party delegates can formally join.
Instead, the names were decided under Xi’s “direct leadership” after he personally met with potential candidates and consulted with others, according to state media Xinhua.
“This Qin saga exposes the vulnerability of Xi’s one-man policy,” said Alfred Wu, associate professor at the Lee Kwan Yew School of Public Policy in Singapore.
Reporting by Yew Lun Tian in Beijing; Editing by John Geddie and Lincoln Feast.
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