Chinese Communist Party (CCP) Politburo member and Director of the Office of the Central Commission for Foreign Affairs Wang Yi has been busy recently. Last week, he attended a series of ASEAN foreign ministerial meetings in Jakarta, where he met with the foreign ministers of several ASEAN countries, the US, Russia and Japan.
Back in Beijing, he accompanied the Chinese leader to meet with foreign dignitaries visiting China, and even met with US special presidential envoy for climate John Kerry on 18 July.
Wang, who is nearly 70, is running around as if he is fulfilling his duties as China’s foreign minister again. Yet, Chinese Foreign Minister Qin Gang, who is supposed to be on the frontline of diplomatic work, has not been seen in public for over three weeks.
At this juncture, it is puzzling that Qin, who handles the country’s diplomatic work, has yet to be seen for some time.
Diplomatic activities back in full force
Following the CCP’s 20th Party Congress, Wang succeeded Yang Jiechi to become director of the Office of the Central Commission for Foreign Affairs, while Qin replaced Wang to become China’s foreign minister, thus forming a Chinese diplomatic team that sees the seasoned veterans guiding the newcomers.
As per usual practice, the main diplomatic work of the director of the Office of the Central Commission for Foreign Affairs is to accompany the top Chinese leader at diplomatic activities, including major bilateral dialogues such as high-level talks between China and the US. Meanwhile, the usual day-to-day frontline diplomatic activities are mostly handled by the foreign minister.
Chinese diplomacy is at its busiest right now, with diplomatic activities previously interrupted by the pandemic returning in full force this year and dignitaries visiting Beijing every now and then. China is also striving to advance its own agenda in the highly divided international arena, while China-US relations are at a critical period of renewed high-level engagement. At this juncture, it is puzzling that Qin, who handles the country’s diplomatic work, has yet to be seen for some time.
Not the first to ‘disappear’
The sudden disappearance of a senior Chinese official, followed by an official announcement attributing his disappearance to health issues or ongoing investigations, is not without precedent in China’s officialdom.
In 2018, former Interpol president and Vice-Minister of China’s Ministry of Public Security Meng Hongwei had mysteriously disappeared, triggering international media attention. Officials later confirmed that he was being investigated for allegedly taking bribes and violating the law.
In 2012, Wang Lijun, then vice-mayor of Chongqing, went to the US consulate in Chengdu alone while embroiled in criminal charges and a political scandal, dropping a bombshell and rocking the Chinese political arena. Chongqing officials then claimed that Wang was receiving “vacation-style” treatment for health issues.
Rumours are flying on social media platforms outside of China like a Hollywood film, with one claim more bewildering than the other, speculating if Qin’s absence is due to health issues, an affair or an alleged double agent.
Fifty-seven-year-old Qin is highly trusted by the higher-ups. Coming from a diplomatic background, Qin was promoted to foreign minister at the end of last year after his brief stint as Chinese ambassador to the US. This March, Qin was appointed as state councilor and became the youngest leader of the party and the state. With his smooth career progression and China’s new diplomatic team taking shape recently, Qin’s absence from major diplomatic events at this juncture has sparked discussions in diplomatic and media circles.
Health issues or something else?
Over the past week, industry peers around me have been raising questions every day about Qin’s whereabouts. Rumours are flying on social media platforms outside of China like a Hollywood film, with one claim more bewildering than the other, speculating if Qin’s absence is due to health issues, an affair or an alleged double agent.
An industry peer privately told me that he has received five or six versions of the news, with some even going so far as to say that Qin had been “abducted by aliens”. Unable to find answers, people’s imaginations are clearly running wild.
Qin’s last public appearance was on 25 June, when he met with senior diplomats from Sri Lanka, Russia and Vietnam in Beijing. For over three weeks, the only official information about Qin came on 11 July during a regular press conference, when Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Wang Wenbin revealed that Wang Yi would attend the ASEAN foreign ministerial meetings, as Qin was unable to attend due to health reasons, which Wang Wenbin did not elaborate.
Hong Kong media reported last week that Qin’s absence was due to Covid-19, but this has not been confirmed by authoritative sources. And as time goes on, the credibility of the speculation decreases because, under normal circumstances, Qin would probably have already recovered if it was indeed a Covid-19 infection.
At the regular press conference by the Chinese foreign ministry on 17 July, spokesperson Mao Ning was grilled by foreign media again regarding Qin’s whereabouts and when he would resume his duties. She no longer cited health reasons but claimed, “I have no understanding of the matter that you’ve raised,” and “I have no information to provide.”
Does the change in wording — from health reasons to having no information to provide — imply a tacit denial of the previous explanation? This ramps up speculation about possible troubles Qin might be facing.
Beyond health factors, one cannot entirely exclude the possibility that Qin’s prolonged disappearance from public view may be due to his association with certain incidents and therefore it is inconvenient for him to continue in his current position for now.
High-level secrecy around officials’ health
So far, it cannot be entirely ruled out that Qin’s absence is due to health reasons, including the need for a prolonged period of recovery and recuperation due to a sudden illness. The lack of further disclosure from the authorities is also in line with their usual practice. In China, it is customary for the government not to publicly discuss the health conditions of senior officials. In the case of Covid-19, over more than three years since the outbreak, there was no news of senior Chinese officials contracting the virus.
The high level of secrecy around the health conditions of senior officials is a unique aspect of China’s political culture. Within this highly opaque system, tight control over any information that could potentially affect the image, current positions and future promotions of senior officials, is aimed at minimising the effect of such information on decision-making.
Beyond health factors, one cannot entirely exclude the possibility that Qin’s prolonged disappearance from public view may be due to his association with certain incidents and therefore it is inconvenient for him to continue in his current position for now. In that case, it is possible that he had to step aside, and former Foreign Minister Wang Yi was asked to fill in for the time being. If so, it could potentially impact China’s diplomatic lineup.
Whether due to health issues or other factors, Qin’s absence is believed to be the result of a sudden event. Rumours surrounding his absence are flying around, and they are becoming increasingly bizarre, which the authorities would not like. Amid speculation and discussion, the government probably needs to respond as soon as possible. The longer this drags on, the more it validates the claim of China’s political opacity.
This article was first published in Lianhe Zaobao as “王毅为何那么忙?”.
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