Why was Wang Yi brought back as China’s foreign minister after Qin Gang’s abrupt exit?

Jul 31, 2023
Photo taken in Brasil 2019. Image: Wikimedia Commons/ Marcos Corrêa/PR Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license.

The Chinese Communist Party has a history of turning to senior figures to steady the ship in emergencies and Wang’s return may be in line with this precedent. Beijing will need someone to prepare the ground for some major diplomatic setpieces including a possible trip to the US by President Xi Jinping.

The abrupt ousting of China’s former foreign minister Qin Gang after only seven months might be highly unusual, but the response may be in line with Beijing’s typical playbook.

Beijing’s move to reappoint Wang Yi to the role follows the tradition of parachuting trusted members of its top decision-making body to steer the Communist Party through a political crisis.

The choice of Wang, who had the job for 10 years before being promoted to become Communist Party’s foreign policy chief last year, is seen by many diplomatic observers as “the safest and best choice” in a busy year of diplomacy.

Qin was removed from his post at a special session of the National People’s Congress Standing Committee on Tuesday without any reason given. Previously the ministry said he could not perform his duties due to “health reasons”.

Wang’s return to the foreign ministry builds on the custom of sending senior party members to fill lower-level posts in times of need.

During the 2003 outbreak of severe acute respiratory syndrome (Sars), the country’s “Iron Lady” Wu Yi took on the role of health minister after becoming vice-premier and a member of the Politburo, the party’s top decision-making body.

She replaced Zhang Wenkang who was removed from the post after heavy criticism of China’s handling of the outbreak.

More recently Zhang Dejiang, also a vice-premier, was sent to Chongqing to fill the role of party chief after the downfall of Bo Xilai, the high-flying official who was once seen as a contender for top leadership roles but was later jailed for life for corruption.

Chen Gang, assistant director and senior research fellow at the East Asian Institute at the National University of Singapore, said he believed Wang is trusted by the top leadership to act as a “firefighter”.

The recent change at the foreign ministry may be following this precedent, according to Li Tao, associate professor of government and public administration at the University of Macau, who said: “Zhang and Wang were used as ballast in a political storm.”

Wang’s return coincides with a major drive by Beijing to reboot its diplomacy after three years of Covid restrictions and put its relations with the West on a better footing.

President Xi Jinping is currently preparing to meet at least seven foreign leaders when the World University Games open in Chengdu this week, and he is also expected to attend the Brics summit in South Africa next month, the Group of 20 summit in India in September and host the Belt and Road summit in Beijing in October.

There is also the possibility he will travel to the United States in November for the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit  – and all these events need the foreign minister to prepare the groundwork.

Yun Sun, director of the China programme at the Washington-based Stimson Centre, said Wang was perhaps “the safest and best choice” to fill the role.

“No one could question his qualifications, and he is such a senior and authoritative person. Given China’s pressing foreign policy tasks for the rest of the year, Beijing will want someone who is credible, stabilising and authoritative to hold the job,” she said.

Wang has a strong support base within the foreign ministry, said Zhang Dong, assistant professor of social science at Hong Kong University of Science and Technology.

“Wang’s return is expected to bring a degree of stability to the ministry and ensure that it is well-prepared for the work ahead in the coming months,” Zhang said.

Wang has been standing in during Qin’s absence over the past few weeks, including a meeting of Association of Southeast Asian foreign ministers.

Sun said that a trip would have to be scheduled relatively soon to pave the ground for any visit to the US by Xi in November. “I think that will remain Wang’s priority as well,” she said.

She did not expect the change to have a major impact on China’s foreign policy, saying: “Chinese foreign ministers don’t make foreign policy. They implement the policy made by the top leaders. Wang Yi will also follow the same course designated by the top, including on the relations with the US.”


First published in the South China Morning Post July 27, 2023

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