Personnel are secondary in a Xi-dominated system.
By Michael Rowand, a researcher for the Federal Research Division of the Library of Congress.
AUGUST 14, 2023
U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken, left, and Chinese Foreign Minister Qin Gang shake hands ahead of a meeting at the Diaoyutai State Guesthouse in Beijing on June 18. LEAH MILLIS/AFP/POOL VIA GETTY IMAGES
The removal of Qin Gang from his post as China’s foreign minister after a weeks-long disappearance fostered a few zesty rumors. Talk of affairs, conspiracies, and corruption has bounced around the net even as other policymakers have been replaced. But whatever sparked Qin’s fall, the impact on Chinese foreign policy and governance will be insignificant—as many of the purges party rule tends to invite are.
The former foreign minister’s fall surprised many observers. Qin had enjoyed a successful career: rising through the ranks, including at multiple positions focusing on Western Europe and the United Kingdom, and gradually building his public profile. There were few apparent blemishes on his record. In 2021, Qin was promoted to ambassador to the United States over the Foreign Ministry’s preferred candidate after being favored by Chinese President Xi Jinping himself. Xi was believed to appreciate Qin’s ability to ardently defend his perception of China’s interests without the same abrasiveness of lesser lights such as notorious—and now bureaucratically exiled—wolf warrior spokesman Zhao Lijian. We still don’t know why Qin was toppled, or what his fate will be, but it came out of the blue. He was only appointed to lead the Foreign Ministry at the end of December 2022.
For several reasons, however, Qin’s removal is unlikely to cause so much as a ripple in China’s foreign policy. The first reason is the nature of the role of foreign minister within the Chinese party-state. Foreign ministers generally do not serve within the Politburo, the 24-member Chinese Communist Party (CCP) body responsible for deliberating and setting major policies for the party-state. Qin was not a member of the Politburo. Zhou Enlai, Mao Zedong’s second, once held considerable sway as both premier and foreign minister; but since the beginning of the reform movement, foreign ministers have not had the same significance in China that they do in parliamentary democracies or that the secretary of state does in the United States.
Formally, the foreign minister is not even the highest diplomatic position within the party-state; that distinction goes to the director of the General Office of the CCP Central Committee Foreign Affairs Commission. Wang Yi, who now holds the strange distinction of being Qin’s both predecessor and successor as foreign minister, has also retained his position leading the General Office of the Foreign Affairs Commission. In the political structure of the People’s Republic of China, positions within the Communist Party are above state positions within the hierarchy of power. As such, in leading the General Office, Wang outranked Qin while Qin was still foreign minister. Moreover, major foreign policy decisions are all made by the president and Party chairman (who leads the Foreign Affairs Commission and the Central Military Commission), a practice that has only intensified under Xi Jinping.
One of Qin’s key roles on his way to leading the Foreign Ministry was his time as foreign ministry spokesperson, from 2005 to 2010. He also led the Foreign Ministry’s Information Department. Under Xi, a premium has been placed on personnel who defend the CCP’s version of China’s interests most vigorously. Many caustic comments that ruffled feathers abroad met with approval from superiors in Beijing. Wang harangued a Canadian reporter for what he called her “prejudice against China” and “arrogance” and was subsequently promoted. Zhao made numerous inflammatory remarks and was promoted to being Ministry spokesperson, before his subsequent demotion. And Qin himself castigated a reporter for bringing up the crimes against humanity taking place in China’s Xinjiang province, claiming they were “fabrications,” before his promotion to foreign minister.
While foreign ministers play major roles in most governments and can even come to lead governments in parliamentary systems, in China the foreign ministry’s most politically relevant charge is arguably public communications regarding diplomatic issues. The role it plays in strategic decisions is often more ancillary. As such, while the office of foreign minister is prominent, its occupant is disposable.
Wang himself is another reason Qin’s dismissal is unlikely to cause major changes. Wang is an experienced figure. There is no reason to believe he will not toe the line or perform similarly to Qin. He speaks with Qin’s same fervency but largely avoids major pitfalls. Both men have taken an interest in supporting foreign authoritarian forces, such as Myanmar’s junta. Wang already served above Qin and is therefore unlikely to enact major policy changes while he occupies both offices.
A further reason there will be no major shifts in Chinese foreign policy following Qin’s downfall is that the demotion bears few signs of factional strife. If the Foreign Ministry changed hands and factions were to blame, that would be significant. But after more than a decade of power consolidation by Xi, as far as can be told from the outside, few forces that could rise to the level of being considered factions remain. While “wolf warrior diplomacy” has become the common term for diplomats who brashly defend the CCP’s perception of Chinese interests abroad, it is not a true faction but more a style that has been in favor with leaders during the Xi era—and so has been adopted by diplomats who took a more conciliatory tone in earlier times. Both Wang and Qin have occasionally displayed elements of the style but not to the point of separating them from their peers. Some foreign ministry officials may be happy at the chance for advancement that Qin’s rapid departure provides, but there is no sign of any faction looking to take Chinese diplomacy in a radically different direction.
Qin’s dismissal comes at a fraught moment for Chinese power. A corruption purge is ongoing in the People’s Liberation Army Rocket Force—a military branch that would be essential in any future Chinese military action. Further purges and bureaucratic maneuvers silence critical thought within the party and tighten Xi’s powerful vise. Most importantly, the engine of Chinese economic growth that spurred China’s expansive ambitions for decades is sputtering. Unemployment is growing and the risk of deflation is real. Foreign investment in China is plummeting. The colossal property bubble that more than a decade ago was called the largest in history is popping. And public statistics likely offer a more sanguine view than the actual economic reality.
While Qin’s fall matters little individually, coming during new purges that continue to roil the governance structure, it does speak to Xi’s unwillingness or inability to settle on a loyal inner circle that can help perpetuate his reign. This is not always the case in authoritarian countries. Sergey Lavrov has been Russia’s foreign minister for more than 19 years. Bruno Rodríguez Parrilla has been Cuba’s minister of foreign affairs for 14 years. Xi has consistently promoted loyalists, yet those once deemed devoted insiders, such as Qin and former Vice President Wang Qishan, have often found themselves sidelined after their moment in the sun.
While such changes may not always be purposeful, with disloyalty and corruption emerging and interrupting careers, the rotating cast around Xi likely advances his absolutism by preventing the formation of large factions and power bases beyond Xi himself, ensuring that power radiates outward from Xi alone. With few figures able to permanently access Xi, foreign intelligence services are also likely forced to change targets more frequently than in a more placid power structure. Still, the perennial purges maintain a sense of uncertainty within the Chinese government as well as in those countries that engage with it. When former officials are punished through their professional and familial connections, current officials are surely more wary of forming productive working relationships. When Xi first came to power, the corruption investigations and purges helped him consolidate power. Now they are a way of life.