The strange departure of Qin Gang as Chinese foreign minister is another public setback for Chinese leader Xi Jinping, a sign that his run at the top has run into serious difficulties.
Qin, who was appointed to the job late last year, was removed from the job on Tuesday, according to a one-sentence government announcement. His successor is his predecessor, Wang Yi, who had been promoted to a position coordinating foreign policy at the top of the Chinese Communist Party.
Qin had been absent for more than a month. Initially, when he had to miss important meetings with foreign leaders, China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs said he was ill. Rumors began to swirl, however, that he was in trouble, perhaps due to an affair with a television journalist.
The truth will eventually come out—it usually does in China, although it sometimes takes months or years—but the way he was dismissed makes it unlikely that it was for health reasons. The fact that the government went into silence mode for a month and then dumped him with a terse announcement is typical for how the Chinese Communist Party deals with crises. He was also erased from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs website, making it seem that the Ministry wanted to distance itself from its recent leader.
Qin’s departure will mean little to China’s foreign policy; foreign ministers are career civil servants who carry out decisions made by the party. Rather, the key point is that Xi Jinping has suffered yet another embarrassingly public setback, one in a string that calls into question his judgment as he now rules alone at the top of the party.
Over the past eighteen months, he has vocally backed Russian leader Vladimir Putin just before he launched his bungled invasion of Ukraine. He also failed to address economic problems, which have festered and resulted in a slowdown that for many Chinese feels like a full-blown recession. His COVID policy over the past year has also been widely criticized inside China: he first insisted on locking down cities even while other countries moved on to mRNA vaccines, and then he abandoned all COVID controls without implementing a vaccination campaign for the elderly or laying in stocks of medicine. That resulted in at least one million deaths of mainly older people over a two-month period.
In a closed system like China, many problems can be kept from the public. But Xi’s defeats are setbacks that all Chinese people can feel and see. Economic growth numbers can be fudged but ultimately people know what they know—and they know that they have less money in their pockets. They can also see the public flip-flopping on COVID, and few will have missed the strange departure of his foreign minister.
One factor unites these failures: a sense that Xi is increasingly isolated and no longer listening to the excellent advice he could get from the Chinese bureaucracy. It is his allergy to market-oriented reforms that is behind the slowdown. Discussion of economic policy is more tightly proscribed than in any period since the start of the Reform and Opening-up era in the late 1970s.
Likewise his stubborn clinging to zero COVID and then his sudden about-face implies that he is not listening to the best people in his country’s public health system. And his promotion of Qin also bypassed many norms, making it yet another faulty personnel judgment.
The implications for Xi are not immediately dire. He has clearcut so much opposition that he will not face any challengers. But these setbacks will likely be seen as signs that Xi’s administration is cut off from society and ossifying—becoming hardened and brittle and leading the country away from the dynamism of past decades.