China’s foreign minister, a tough-talking diplomat seen as a protégé of President Xi Jinping, has not been seen in three weeks, prompting speculation about his disappearance during a critical period for relations between Beijing and Washington.
Qin Gang, 57, is one of China’s most prominent voices in the outside world, a former ambassador to the United States before Xi promoted him to foreign minister in December. Although he and his country had recently become associated with his style, Qin soon adopted the belligerent rhetoric that later became known as China’s “wolf warrior diplomacy”.
But Qin appears to have missed a flurry of high-profile visits, including those this month by Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen and US climate envoy John Kerry.
“It is impossible to know why it is not visible, because secrecy is part of the political system in China and there is very little information about public figures,” said Frans-Paul van der Putten, researcher senior at the Clingendael. Institute, a Dutch think tank.
“What we do know is that this should be a very important moment for Qin Gang, given his background and knowledge of the West, when all these high-level meetings are held,” said van der Putten with him. “But it’s not there.”
Qin’s last public appearance was in Beijing on June 25, when he met with colleagues from Russia, Vietnam and Sri Lanka, according to the Foreign Ministry website.
Ten days later, on July 5, China canceled without explanation a meeting between Qin and the European Union’s foreign policy chief Josep Borrell, who was due to travel to China.
Qin’s absence was not noticed until last week, when he was due to attend a diplomatic meeting at the Association of Southeast Asian Nations summit in Indonesia. His ministry spokesman Wang Wenbin told a news conference two days earlier that Qin would miss the event for health reasons.
This quote, reported by Reuters, was omitted from the ministry’s online transcript of the briefing. Subsequent attempts to ask about Qin’s whereabouts at the ministry’s daily briefings went unanswered, and were accordingly omitted from the written record.
“I have no information to provide on this matter,” Foreign Ministry spokesman Mao Ning said Monday, according to a live stream on CTI TV Taiwan’s YouTube channel.
“I don’t know about the situation you mentioned,” Mao told one of the Western journalists who repeatedly asked about Qin’s return. “China’s diplomatic activities are being carried out as usual,” she told another.
This information vacuum has been filled with conjecture and armchair theorizing by the mainstream and social media internationally, much of which appears to be rooted in proven fact.
It is not surprising since Qin is a famous name in China and abroad. In addition to being foreign minister, he is also a state councilor, a high-ranking official within the State Council, the executive body of the ruling Communist Party of China.
Until December he was China’s ambassador to the US and before that he was a sharp-tongued spokesman for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. This earned him the nickname “Zhan Gang,” which means “Warrior Gang,” according to a briefing from the Center for China Analysis and Strategya think tank based in New Delhi.
“He was out of his mind saying things that are very, very nationalistic, standing up for China’s interests and criticizing the West’s approach,” said van der Putten, a China expert based in the Netherlands. “But he’s a serious diplomat and there’s more to his performance than being a wolf warrior.”
As secretary of state, the relationship between the United States and China has been in decline and then partially recovered: first the August visit by the Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi to Taiwan, a self-governing island that China considers its own territory, and then when the United States in February shot down a Chinese spy balloon that was said to be flying over the American mainland.
In recent months there has been something of a thaw, with high-level visits by Yellen, Kerry, and in June by Secretary of State Antony Blinken, who met with Qin and invited him to visit the US, according to Summary of the Department of State at the time.
Unexplained disappearances of such high-profile figures are not uncommon in China, which has an opaque police and justice system and severely restricts freedom of speech and other rights, according to international human rights groups.
In 2018, Meng Hongwei, China’s vice minister of public security and president of the Interpol service, disappeared while on a return visit to his home country from Europe, where Interpol is based. He was later charged with accepting bribes and sentenced to more than 13 years in prison, as part of Xi’s sweeping crackdown on corruption.
In early 2021, Chinese tech billionaire Jack Ma made his first public appearance in three months after making critical comments about China’s regulatory system.
In the past, China has criticized Western democracy as too volatile and unpredictable compared to its own communist model. But the uncertainty about Qin’s future is likely to affect the West’s short-term relationship with China, at least in tone, van der Putten said.
“It should be a very important time for Qin,” he said. “It is therefore significant to be in office but to be absent.”