China is removing its foreign minister, Qin Gang, and reappointing his predecessor, veteran diplomat Wang Yi, to fill the position.
The move, reported Tuesday by Chinese state media, comes after Qin disappeared from public view after meeting in Beijing with the Russian deputy foreign minister on June 25.
Chinese authorities have given no substantial explanation for the whereabouts of Qin, who was named foreign minister in December after less than two years as ambassador to the United States. The lack of information has led foreign dignitaries to postpone visits to Beijing and fueled unsubstantiated rumors about the senior official's personal life and professional record.
The announcement of his replacement, made at a hastily called meeting of the leaders of China's rubber-stamp parliament, said for now Qin will keep his title of state councilor, akin to an American Cabinet position, indicating he is not in serious political trouble. But Qin has not yet reappeared.
Qin's predecessor and replacement, 69-year-old Wang, is a seasoned diplomat who state leaders, including many U.S. officials, know well. He held the foreign minister post for nearly a decade starting in 2013, before being promoted to join the Politburo, an elite Communist Party ruling body, as well as heading up the party's international affairs department.
But Qin's continued absence has unnerved China's international interlocutors, and the sudden personnel switch is a sign of how elite politics continues to operate behind extreme opaqueness even as Beijing's international clout expands, analysts say.
Qin, 57, began his career in 1988, when he was first assigned to work for the Beijing bureau of the United Press International, a U.S. news agency, on a short stint. At the time, foreign news outlets were not allowed to directly employ Chinese nationals and were assigned local employees by the authorities.
He then made a dizzying climb up China's diplomatic ranks, proving himself to be a deft operator who could strike a balance with the foreign ministry's growing legion of what Chinese and Western analysts call "wolf warrior diplomacy" while still maintaining a suave, cosmopolitan touch.
In two previous assignments as one of the Foreign Ministry's spokespeople, Qin became a household name by delivering scathing one-liners and takedowns of the foreign press, creating a more forthright communication style from the podium that has since been adopted by successive spokespeople.
As vice foreign minister starting in 2018, Qin was the driver behind the Chinese response to coordinated British, American and European Union sanctions on four senior Chinese officials over human rights abuses in the region of Xinjiang.
Under Qin's urging, Beijing eventually decided to impose counter-sanctions barring more than two dozen European institutions and individuals that far exceeded the scope of Western sanctions, according to two Western diplomats familiar with the matter. They requested anonymity because they weren't authorized to talk publicly.
Qin is widely perceived as close to China's leader, Xi Jinping, after the two had frequent interactions when Qin was chief of protocol between 2014 and 2018. Qin developed a reputation for an exacting attention to detail, such as reportedly phoning up museum directors at 2 in the morning during one of Xi's visits to Belarus to run through logistics again.
His appointment in 2021 as China's ambassador to the U.S. — as economic and political tensions mounted between the two countries — was a further sign of the trust Xi had in Qin, analysts say.
Emily Feng reported from Taipei, Taiwan. Aowen Cao contributed research from Beijing.