September 5, 2023 Inquiry & Analysis Series No. 1716

Xi Jinping Dismisses Pro-U.S. Foreign Minister Qin Gang – But This Does Not Indicate That China Is Committing To A Pro-Russia Stance

September 5, 2023 | By Chris King*
China | Inquiry & Analysis Series No. 1716

Starting on June 25, 2023, Qin Gang, who had been serving as China's foreign minister for the previous seven months, disappeared from the public eye, even missing several important diplomatic activities. This disappearance triggered outside speculation, and in mid-July, rumors began to spread that Qin's disappearance was related to the birth of his child; the mother is Fu Xiaotian, a reporter and show host on the CCP's overseas mouthpiece Phoenix TV.

Ousted Chinese Foreign Minister Qin Gang.

On July 25, 2023, at the Standing Committee of the 14th National People's Congress's fourth meeting, it was decided to remove Qin Gang from his post as foreign minister (although he retained his role as State Councilor). Overall, he had served in this post for less than seven months – the shortest tenure in the CCP's diplomatic history – and his sudden removal is highly unusual.[1] On the same day, Chinese President Xi Jinping signed a presidential decree stating that Wang Yi, director of the CCP Central Committee's Foreign Affairs Office (a rival analog to the Foreign Ministry) and who has in the past also served as foreign minister, had been appointed to replace Qin as Foreign Minister.

Broadly speaking, both Wang Yi and Qin Gang are cronies of Xi Jinping, but each represents a different side of the power struggle within Xi's faction: Qin Gang has pro-U.S. and pro-West tendencies, as reflected by the heartfelt admiration for the status of the United States he expressed after the outbreak of the Russia-Ukraine war in early 2022, while Wang Yi favors "wolf warrior diplomacy," is hostile to the U.S., and aims to advance China's relations with Russia.

China Is Not Committing To A Pro-Russia Stance

The replacement of Qin Gang with Wang Yi as foreign minister is symptomatic of a conflict between the opposing pro-Western and pro-Russian outlooks within Xi's own camp. However, the upset is not a diplomatic milestone indicating that China is completely turning away from the West and committing to an alliance with Russia. This is particularly the case since the West is much more integrated with China, therefore playing a role in its future that Russia does not play. In addition, although U.S.-China relations are rocky, they do not have the same structural obstacles as relations between the U.S. and Russia, and therefore may warm up, easing the current crisis of trust.[2]

That Xi Jinping is carefully balancing China's relations with both the U.S. and Russia is evident in several recent developments that have nothing to do with the Qin Gang incident:

  1. Around the same time that rumors started spreading about Qin's relationship with Fu, there was a sudden series of visits to China by senior Biden administration officials, seemingly with the intention of supporting the "pro-U.S. forces" within the CCP. CIA Director Burns visited China secretly, and then Secretary Blinken visited China on June 18 (during his visit, he met with Qin Gang); on July 6, U.S. Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen visited China; on July 17, U.S. Presidential Special Envoy on Climate Issues John Kerry visited Beijing; on July 16, Henry Kissinger visited China on the occasion of his 100th birthday – Xi Jinping met with him personally and held a special birthday party for him.[3]

  2. On July 15, the Chinese and Russian navies conducted a joint military exercise in the Sea of Japan.[4] It was certainly not to Putin's liking that Kissinger was hosted by Xi just one day later, since Kissinger is a symbol of historical animosity to Russia.

  3. On July 20, a Russian missile attack damaged the Chinese consulate in Odessa, Ukraine, and on July 23, Russia bombed 60,000 tons of grain that was going to be shipped to China.

  4. A joint Chinese and Russian naval patrol group of 11 ships sailed near Alaska in early August,[5] and the U.S. Navy deployed four Arleigh Burke-class destroyers to follow it.

  5. China-U.S. economic and trade relations have shown clear signs of warming recently. On August 22, the State Council Information Office of China held a press conference to introduce the 23rd China International Fair for Investment and Trade (CIFIT). A Chinese Ministry of Commerce official said in response to media questions: "We also very much hope that through the seminar at this year's CIFIT, we can further build a platform for exchanges and practical cooperation between Chinese and American enterprises, and also build more consensus and inject more positive energy into China-U.S. economic and trade cooperation."[6]

  6. On August 27, U.S. Secretary of Commerce Gina Raimondo began a four-day visit to China, after the U.S. announced the removal of 33 entities, including 27 Chinese companies, from the "unverified list." Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Wang Wenbin said: "China welcomes the U.S. decision to remove Chinese entities from the 'unverified list.' This shows that the two sides can address specific concerns through communication based on mutual respect."[7]

It is evident that even as Qin Gang was under attack, Xi's diplomatic and military actions were still cautious, with the goal of maintaining the balance between the United States and Russia, further demonstrating that China has no clear intention to tilt in favor of Russia.[8]

The Role Played By Qin Gang

The question remains: What was the actual role played by Qin Gang in Chinese foreign policy and domestic politics, and what is the significance of his ouster?

Xi Had Promoted Qin Gang In Order to Repair the Damage Done To China-U.S. Relations By "Wolf-Warrior" Diplomats

China's Foreign Ministry is a giant interest group, full of factions and rampant nepotism. The Ministry, in cooperation with China's Ministry of State Security and the CCP's United Front Work Department, has extensive overseas operations to transfer benefits and buy off foreign politicians, and these huge expenditures are often a huge mess. By choosing a loyalist such as Qin Gang to head the Foreign Ministry, Xi had hoped for an overhaul in the Foreign Ministry and an investigation into the huge amounts of money invested in foreign influence operations in the West and the U.S. by other Chinese diplomatic officials, such as Wang Yi, which have touched a sensitive nerve of interest groups in China's diplomatic system.

In addition, during Wang Yi's tenure as foreign minister, his "wolf warrior diplomacy" severely disrupted relations between China and the U.S., to the extent that the Foreign Ministry was nicknamed by many the "Ministry of Breaking Relations." This is not what Xi had hoped for, and he aimed to repair relations with the West through Qin Gang, a trusted loyalist who has a positive relationship with the Biden administration, with the U.S. State Department and Secretary of State Antony Blinken, and the American media. In this regard, Xi Jinping was essentially hedging his bets by promoting Qin Gang: Despite China's rocky relationship with the West, he wanted to avoid tying himself entirely to the Russian chariot, particularly since China's economic crisis (and the resulting crisis of confidence in the CCP) would be eased if relations with the U.S. are smoothed over. Indeed, Xi had initially appointed Qin Gang as ambassador to the United States in 2021 in order to repair and improve China-U.S. relations, although Xi would never openly admit this, since it would show weakness to the Americans.

Qin Gang Was Part of Xi's Strategy For Maintaining Balance and Control of His Faction

As the top leader of the CCP and as one who is familiar with the rule of Chinese emperors, Xi is certainly happy to see different opinions and orientations within his own CCP clique, since this enables him to "divide and rule" by letting the different sub-factions contain each other.

In this context, it should be noted that Qin Gang had been implementing Xi Jinping's secret foreign policy, which was fiercely opposed and blocked by Qin's domestic political enemies such as Wang Yi. When Qin Gang became foreign minister, he had also offended Wang by marginalizing some of his colleagues such as "wolf warrior" diplomats Zhao Lijian and Geng Shuang. Wang Yi's clique created public opinion and spread rumors, raising the issue of Qin Gang's private life (particularly with regard to his illegitimate son, who was born in the U.S. and is therefore a U.S. citizen) to the level of "treason and aiding the enemy".

No Longer Worth It – Allowing Qin To Keep His Post Would Endanger Xi's Delicate Political Balance

Ultimately, it appears that Xi was forced to remove Qin Gang from the post of foreign minister because the outcry on the part of Wang Yi and the other pro-Russia "wolf warrior" diplomats threatened to upset the delicate balance within Xi's own faction. The internal political cost of justifying any continued support for Qin Gang to his faction and to the CCP – and particularly to boldly anti-American forces within it – would be simply too high for Xi.

Were he to insist on protecting Qin, Xi would have created the perception that as long as someone is a close associate of his, no matter his sins, he will not be punished. This would seriously weaken the legitimacy of Xi's strict requirements for officials at all levels of the CCP, and it would cause people to question his aggressive anti-corruption campaign and his hiring standards. In addition, for Xi's cronies, it would create the illusion that no matter what happens in the future, Xi will unconditionally protect them in order to consolidate his power, giving them the green light to behave recklessly. Surely, these were among the considerations in Xi's decision to dismiss Qin Gang. Xi Jinping had to essentially sacrifice Qin Gang, the main implementer of his unofficial pro-U.S. policies, so that he could continue with this policy without disrupting the internal balance between the different factions in his camp.

*Chris King is Senior Research Fellow for the MEMRI Chinese Media Studies Project.


[1] There have been some rumors that the Qin Gang incident is related to recent leaks and purges in the top echelon of the PLA's Rocket Force, but this is unlikely. The Rocket Force purge is related to internal corruption issues and to the extent to which Xi can trust the command tier, rather than to general political or foreign policy issues relating in any way to Qin Gang.

[2] It should be noted that if Russia manages to prevail in the war in Ukraine despite the Western opposition and outcry, this may stimulate Xi's ambitions regarding Taiwan, and it would have an impact on Russia's strategic value to China.

[3] It should be noted that those who are familiar with Chinese political and diplomatic thinking and traditions would note that Xi's birthday dinner for Kissinger is not simply a show of friendship for Kissinger himself, but a signal of detente to the United States. This can be compared to when Mao Zedong invited his old friend, American journalist Edgar Snow, to stand on Tiananmen Gate on October 1, 1970, in order to indicate to the Nixon administration that he has intentions to ease China-U.S. relations.

[6], August 23, 2023.

[7],of%20Chinese%20companies%20and%20institutions, August 22, 2023.

[8] Naturally, Moscow would be highly nervous about any rapprochement between China and the U.S., and therefore the Qin Gang incident appears to have been viewed positively in Russian circles. Some analysts even believe that Putin has deliberately been cultivating a relationship with Wang Yi and other “wolf warrior” diplomats in order to subtly sabotage the relationship between China and the U.S. and draw China closer to Russia. For instance, there have been reports on domestic and overseas social media and some overseas Chinese websites that Russia intensified its surveillance of "pro-American" members of the CCP's diplomatic system, such as Qin Gang, and intercepted inside information about Qin’s "secret contacts with the U.S. and treasonous acts". According to the reports, Putin quickly transferred the relevant intelligence to Xi Jinping and to Wang Yi, who has reportedly used the information to accuse Qin Gang of treason. However, many of these reports are unverifiable.

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