The ouster of China’s Foreign Minister Qin Gang, after only six months in that post, and the recalling of his senior Wang Yi to it, has exposed the rot in China’s higher echelons and the vulnerabilities of the second largest economy in the world. The Qin episode indicates that in China, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs counts for little.
The position of Foreign Minister is not decisive in China’s hierarchy. Previously, the Communist Party’s Politburo organ, the Central Small Leading Group on Foreign Policy – exercised control. Now, the Central Foreign Affairs Commission does so. But the Foreign Minister is nevertheless important at the bureaucratic level and in implementing Communist Party policy, especially in the current “new era”.
China’s leaders have never really thought much of their foreign ministry. At the onset of the Cultural Revolution in the 1960s, the foreign ministry was thrown into chaos as ambassadors from around the world were recalled to Beijing to participate in domestic political activities. Almost all the previous foreign ministers until then — Chen Yi, Ji Pengfei, Qiao Guanhua and Huang Hua — were publicly denounced. Only Premier Zhou Enlai, himself a former foreign minister but one close to Mao, could help bail them out.
While professionalism began to take root in the foreign ministry in the 1980s, soon it was exposed to the crippling effect of international isolation and sanctions following the Tiananmen Square massacre in 1989. As the then Foreign Minister Qian Qichen wrote, it was a herculean task for China to get out of the doghouse and to bounce back economically.
Later, corruption charges levelled against China’s diplomatic corps stalled the foreign ministry’s functioning. It is believed that Xi introduced his anti-corruption drive to eliminate rival factions, including in the foreign ministry. Some Chinese diplomats who served in India also became victims of this drive. The flamboyant Le Yucheng, an envoy to New Delhi and a strong contender for the foreign minister’s post, was sent off to an obscure broadcasting unit, presumably for overenthusiastically advocating a “limitless partnership” with Moscow.
But Qin Gang’s story is not one of these structural issues in China’s set-up. His seems to be a story of personal indiscretions and factional rivalries. He was alleged to have had an affair with a Phoenix TV journalist, Fu Xiaotian, and a son, ‘Erkin’, with her. Fu’s connections to Cambridge University and Qin’s Security Service affiliation have added an angle of intelligence games, amidst factional struggles in the ministry.
Qin had served mostly in the information department, protocol division, and as a spokesman, with brief stints in London and Washington. Xi Jinping is said to have handpicked him as foreign minister, overlooking more senior aspirants and thus causing heartburn. Xi had successfully jettisoned all rival factions from the decision and policymaking bodies of the country, including the Communist Youth League. But the Qin affair is likely to be a setback, with cascading effects on other ministries as well.
Qin had come to India for the G-20 foreign ministerial meeting and parroted the official line that the border with India is stable, despite full mobilisation of troops and the incomplete process of disengagement and de-escalation. Wang Yi was the author of this position, and he is likely to continue this stance. In 2020, Wang had also stated that Galwan “had always belonged to China”, without providing any evidence in this regard. He is likely to continue a hardline position on India in the near future.
Qin’s short-lived glory in the foreign ministry will be erased and forgotten quickly, as episodes of political scrubbing go in China. While the foreign ministry might regain some prominence under Wang, the uncertainties created by the mercurial and mysterious actions in appointments to high posts and the factional struggles in the ministry will have telling effects on a China that continues its all-round assertiveness globally.
Unlike during the Cold War period, when China was cushioned amidst the US-Soviet superpower rivalry, today China itself is in focus due to its own enlarged ambition to replace the United States as the global hegemon. The Qin affair, which paints a poor picture of China internally and points to the inherent dangers of an unstable and erratic set-up and processes, has therefore come at a most inconvenient time for Beijing.
This article was first published in The Deccan Herald as The ouster of Qin Gang: Anarchy in China’s Heaven on 30th July, 2023.
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