China’s foreign minister, a tough-talking diplomat seen as something of a protégé to President Xi Jinping, has not been seen in three weeks, fueling speculation about his disappearance during a critical time for relations between Beijing and Washington.
Qin Gang, 57, is one of China’s most prominent voices to the outside world, a former ambassador to the U.S. before Xi promoted him to foreign minister in December. Although he and his country have recently tempered their style, Qin was an early adopter of the combative rhetoric later known as China’s “wolf warrior diplomacy.”
“It’s impossible to know why he has not been seen, because secrecy is part of the political system in China and there is very little information when it comes to public figures,” said Frans-Paul van der Putten, a senior researcher 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 there are all of these high-level meetings going on,” van der Putten added. “But he is not there.”
The last record of Qin being seen in public was in Beijing on June 25, when he met counterparts from Russia, Vietnam and Sri Lanka, according to the Foreign Affairs Ministry website.
Ten days later, on July 5, China without explanation canceled a meeting between Qin and European Union foreign policy chief Josep Borrell, who had been due to travel to China.
Qin’s absence remained largely unnoticed until last week, when he was due to attend a diplomatic gathering at the Association of Southeast Asian Nations summit in Indonesia. His ministry’s spokesman, Wang Wenbin, told a briefing two days before that Qin would miss the event because of “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 have not been answered, then similarly excluded from the written record.
“I have no information to provide on this question,” Foreign Affairs Ministry spokesperson Mao Ning said Monday, according to a livestream on the YouTube channel of Taiwan’s CTI TV.
“I don’t know about the case 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.
China’s new ambassador to the U.S., Xie Feng, did not shed any light on Qin’s whereabouts when he spoke at the Aspen Security Forum on Wednesday.
When asked whether Henry Kissinger, the former U.S. secretary of state, who is visiting Beijing had met Qin, the Chinese ambassador said: “Well, let’s wait and see.” He declined to elaborate.
The ambassador also warned the U.S. against allowing Taiwan’s vice president, Lai Ching-te, from making a stop in the U.S. on his way to Paraguay next month.
“A priority for us is to stop [Taiwan Vice President Lai] from visiting the United States, which is like a great rhino charging at us,” the ambassador said.
The vacuum of information about Qin has been filled with speculation and armchair theorizing by mainstream and social media internationally, little of which appears to be rooted in confirmed fact.
It’s unsurprising given Qin is a well-known name both within China and abroad. As well as being foreign minister, he is also a state councilor, a high-ranking official within the State Council, the executive body of the ruling Chinese Communist Party.
Until December he was China’s ambassador to the U.S. and previously served as a sharp-tongued spokesperson for the Foreign Affairs Ministry. This earned him the nickname “Zhan Gang,” meaning “Warrior Gang,” according to a briefing by the Centre for China Analysis and Strategy, a think tank based in New Delhi.
“He has been outspoken in saying things that are very, very nationalistic, standing up for China’s interests and criticizing the Western approach,” said van der Putten, the Netherlands-based China expert. “But he’s a serious diplomat and there are more dimensions to his performance than just being a wolf warrior.”
His relatively short tenure as foreign minister has seen U.S.-China relations plunge to new lows and then partially recover: first over the August visit by then-House Speaker Nancy Pelosi to Taiwan, a self-governing island that China considers its own territory, then when the U.S. shot down in February what it said was a Chinese spy balloon 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 U.S., according to a State Department summary at the time.
Such unexplained disappearances of 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 serving president of Interpol, disappeared while on a return visit to his homeland from Europe, where Interpol is based. He was later accused of accepting bribes and sentenced to more than 13 years in prison, part of Xi’s sweeping crackdown on corruption.
In early 2021, the Chinese tech billionaire Jack Ma made his first public appearance in three months after making comments critical of China’s regulatory system.
In the past, China has criticized Western democracy as being too changeable and unpredictable compared with its own communist model. But the uncertainty over Qin’s future is likely having an impact on the West’s short-term relationship with China, in tone at least, van der Putten said.
“It should be a really important time for Qin,” he added. “To be in office but to be absent is therefore very noticeable.”