Several senior Chinese officials appear to have mysteriously disappeared recently. At the end of 2022, Qin Gang was quickly promoted by Chinese President Xi Jinping to minister of foreign affairs, but he has not appeared in public since 25 June 2023. At the National People’s Congress meeting on 25 July, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) removed Qin as foreign minister and replaced him with Wang Yi, director of the Office of the Central Foreign Affairs Commission.
In addition, it was rumoured that Li Yuchao, commander of the CCP Rocket Army, had come under investigation at the end of June, and Wu Guohua, the deputy commander, had died “abnormally”. At the end of July, the CCP recruited a new Rocket Army commander, Wang Houbin, and political commissar, Xu Xisheng, which seems to indirectly confirm the dramatic change in leadership. Finally, Wang Shaojun, director of the Central Security Bureau, passed away in April this year, but his death was not announced until July.
What kind of high-level political dynamics do these suspenseful events reflect? Has Xi’s power been challenged? My analysis is as follows:
The case of Qin Gang
First of all, a more credible explanation for Qin’s disappearance can be found in his private life. Qin, although married, had a secret relationship with news anchor Fu Xiaotian in recent years and had a son with her. This is an obvious and major deficiency with respect to the construction of family tradition (家风, jiafeng) and the integrity of officials that Xi emphasises.
... the CCP only removed his concurrent posting of foreign minister, which shows that Xi still has expectations for this diplomat whom he personally promoted...
At the National People’s Congress where Qin was removed as foreign minister, the CCP announced that he would no longer serve as the concurrent (兼任) foreign minister, but there was no mention of any changes to his position as a member of the State Council Committee (国务委员). In other words, the CCP appeared to retain Qin in his position as deputy state leader while framing the position of foreign minister as “concurrent” to reduce the political impact of his removal.
It is rumoured that Qin was demoted from the post of foreign minister because he had leaked secrets to the US. If this is true, Qin undoubtedly violated the most sensitive political red line of the CCP, that is, colluding with foreign powers. For Xi, who is now emphasising the rejuvenation of the Chinese nation, Qin must be completely “liquidated”, and I am afraid that he could even lose his position as a member of the State Council Committee.
However, the CCP only removed his concurrent posting of foreign minister, which shows that Xi still has expectations for this diplomat whom he personally promoted, but because of his private life, he could no longer serve as foreign minister.
Diplomacy is a highly sensitive field. Wang’s reassignment as foreign minister was done to stabilise the cohesion of the ministry’s personnel and prevent morale from being dampened by Qin’s accident.
Overall, Qin had spared no effort in promoting Xi Jinping’s “wolf warrior diplomacy” in the past, so his punishment should be limited to losing his position as foreign minister. In the future, he can still be in charge of important work as a member of the State Council Committee.
The purge of Rocket Army generals
Regarding the purge of Rocket Army generals, it is clear that Xi is hoping to further strengthen political control over this high-tech arm. It has been rumoured that Li Yuchao, the former commander of the Rocket Army, betrayed information about the unit through his son, who was studying in the US, so Li was dismissed and investigated. There is no credible information to verify whether Li’s son did in fact sell information to foreign powers.
However, after Xi came to power, he stipulated that if the children of cadres are studying or working abroad (especially in the West), they must report this to their superior, and they are not allowed to serve as leading cadres. Obviously, the commander of the Rocket Army is a highly important leadership position, and Li must not hold this position while his son is studying abroad.
One possible explanation for the turn of events is that Li deliberately concealed his son’s overseas studies and was later punished after being exposed. Xi attaches great importance to the political loyalty of the Rocket Army, and he may have regarded Li’s failure to declare his son’s status as dishonesty. Therefore, Xi conducted a large-scale investigation into Li’s relevant personnel and the decisions made during his tenure as the commander of the Rocket Army.
This shows that Xi may value political loyalty more than professionalism.
Some media believe that the accusations of leaking by Li Yuchao and Qin Gang may be a political counterattack by an anti-Xi group. This could be a bit of an over-inference. First, there is no credible information that these two have passed on intelligence. In addition, as noted here, there were other relevant reasons for the removal of both men.
The general who succeeded Li Yuchao, Wang Houbin, comes from the Navy and had no experience in the Rocket Army. This is the first time that a general not from this system has served as the commander of this highly professional military branch. This shows that Xi may value political loyalty more than professionalism.
While some senior officials have been dismissed recently, this simply shows that Xi continues to firmly control personnel and decision-making powers.
At the peak
Finally, the reason that the death of Wang Shaojun, director of the Central Security Bureau, was not immediately announced may be related to the fact that the successor of the Central Security Bureau had not been decided. The Central Security Bureau is responsible for Xi’s security work, and Xi likely does not trust anyone to fill this position. In the future, it may even be possible for Xi himself to take charge of the work of the Central Security Bureau.
Another related incident is that Xi’s confidant, member of the State Council Committee and Minister of Public Security Wang Xiaohong, was removed from the post of director of the Ministry of Public Security’s Secret Service in July of this year. This position is responsible for the security of the head of the party and other important people. Xi is unwilling to allow Wang to control too many security guard positions. This would be tantamount to entrusting Xi’s own personal safety to Wang. For Xi, it is a safer approach to let other cadres take on these tasks and weaken Wang’s authority.
In short, Xi’s grip on political power shows no signs of fading. While some senior officials have been dismissed recently, this simply shows that Xi continues to firmly control personnel and decision-making powers. In addition, Xi’s cautious and suspicious personality is likely to deepen his desire to personally control more security affairs and weaken other officials’ authority in this regard. These phenomena all present the true image of Xi today: a figure who remains in power, but who is suspicious of all cadres.
Related: Qin Gang’s dismissal: Reflections on the Chinese system | The Qin Gang mystery and Chinese foreign policy | Wang Yi reappointed as Chinese foreign minister: An authoritative figure amid the intrigue | Leadership reshuffle spells trouble within China’s military governance | China's never-ending battle against corruption