BEIJING — As a spokesperson, he delivered excoriating one-liners and helped pioneer a brash, more sharply confident communication style from the Chinese foreign ministry's pulpit.
Now, as the new Chinese ambassador to the United States, Qin Gang, 55, will need to straddle two sometimes-contradictory priorities: satisfying an increasingly nationalistic audience back home while being placatory and diplomatic toward an American political landscape that has become increasingly hostile to China. Qin arrived in the U.S. on Wednesday to take up his new post, according to a statement from the Chinese Embassy.
"One [priority] is the need to project strength and confidence, and the other is the need to manage sensitivities with a bilateral partner, the United States," says Peter Martin, author of China's Civilian Army, a new book on Chinese diplomacy. "It's really important that whoever holds that position is kind of able to walk a middle path between those two extremes."
After arriving in Washington, Qin will need to contend with the most fraught U.S.-China relationship in more than 40 years. The Biden administration has described China as a threat to the international order that America helped create, and emphasized competition with China over advanced technology and military superiority. It has maintained many of the sanctions on major Chinese technology and defense companies, including telecom firm Huawei, put in place during the Trump era. The two countries continue to clash on human rights issues, including China's heavy-handed governance of Hong Kong and mass detentions in Xinjiang, which the administration has labeled a genocide.
China recently described relations between the two countries as at a "stalemate." "This is pure coercive diplomacy," China's vice foreign minister Xie Feng said of American foreign policy, according to a Chinese government read out of the meeting.
Qin, who has served in various attaché and senior foreign ministry positions in the United Kingdom and Western Europe, is not an expert on American affairs — and that sets him apart from his predecessors. Instead, he made his name as a two-time spokesperson for the foreign ministry, establishing a more acerbic style of communication with the foreign press and diplomats as China began to gain geopolitical and economic prominence.
"We were seeing a transition — in the person of Qin Gang — away from this earlier, sometimes almost amiable relationship between the foreign ministry and the foreign correspondents based in China," says Dexter Roberts, who reported for more than two decades in China with Businessweek and Bloomberg, starting in the 1990s. "It's just different worlds now, and I do see him as sort of a part of that transition towards a new or far less friendly, even hostile relationship."
Qin's willingness to skewer the U.S. with colorful punchlines and Chinese metaphors made him one of the first foreign ministry celebrities. Chinese media lauded him as the spokesperson who "likes to counterattack journalists" when he stepped down from his second spokesperson term in 2014.
"He was wholly contemptuous of the [foreign] press corps, and he made no bones about it," says Ed Lanfranco, who reported from Beijing for the UPI news agency for nine years, until 2009. "Qin exhibited all the competence of Sean Spicer and the charm of Sarah Huckabee Sanders in the White House when dealing with the press."
At one Beijing news conference in 2014, Qin delivered one of his best-known one-liners to foreign journalists, a few days after then-President Barack Obama gave a speech saying the U.S. would remain a world leader for the next century.
"Must be nice to be the big boss of the world," Qin said. Then he went on to deliver this head-scratching zinger: "I don't know if there is a Paul the Octopus to predict the future in international affairs. But I can tell you China was once big boss for more than a century." He was referring to the cephalopod Paul's amazing predictive abilities during the 2010 soccer World Cup.
The line went viral in China.
His first stint as spokesperson, from 2005 to 2010, was no less memorable and coincided with a number of events that cemented China as a heavyweight on the global stage. In 2008, Qin forcefully pushed back against international news reports that alleged Chinese authorities had violently suppressed protests among Buddhist clergy and Tibetans in the region of Tibet. That same year, Qin helped shepherd foreign media coverage of the Beijing Olympics, which served as an international coming out party for a resurgent Chinese state as much as it was a global sporting event.
"This was at a time after the global financial crisis when China was stepping out on the world stage," says James Green, a former U.S. diplomat who worked on China issues for two decades. "He was the face in some ways of new China trying to pick up the pieces after, in the Chinese view, the U.S. destroyed the global financial system and China was stepping in to save it."
Green points out Qin's recent experience is not in policymaking but in protocol, the rules of diplomacy — as in arranging high-level state visits for Chinese leaders such as Xi Jinping. That gave him an opportunity to know the leadership and to earn trust with China's upper political echelon in a way that most other officials often aren't able to do.
Qin also presaged the unapologetically nationalistic and abrasive style of foreign policy some younger Chinese diplomats now favor — a style Chinese state media have branded "wolf warrior" diplomacy, named after a popular Chinese movie franchise.
"Qin very much typified the tougher defense of China's positions and absolute rejection of any foreign criticism," said one former foreign correspondent who frequently attended Qin's press conferences and who asked to remain anonymous because he still works in China.
Qin's legacy is evident among the more recent, outspoken foreign ministry spokespeople who have become social media stars in their own right. Zhao Lijian, perhaps the most confrontational, has used his Twitter account to accuse the U.S., with no evidence, of starting the coronavirus pandemic and to instigate diplomatic rows with Japan and Australia.
Behind the scenes, Qin has also struck a tough line in his current post as a vice minister overseeing European affairs. During his tenure beginning in 2018, he oversaw 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 that far exceeded the scope of Western sanctions, according to two people familiar with the matter. They requested anonymity because they weren't authorized to talk publicly. It barred four British institutions and nine individuals as well as four major government and research institutions and 10 European individuals in the EU.
Qin succeeds Cui Tiankai, who has been China's ambassador to the U.S. for eight years. Qin inherits a tough job. Tariffs on Chinese goods and sanctions on Chinese officials remain from the last U.S. administration. Now Republican politicians with presidential ambitions are calling for a boycott of the 2022 Beijing Winter Olympics.
And if Qin was upset when Obama said the U.S. would lead the world, he's unlikely to be pleased with President Biden, who has insisted that the United States has no intention of ceding its status as the world's preeminent economic and military power to China.
A sharp-tongued Chinese ambassador with a flair for the theatrical could make relations even more colorful.
Emily Feng reported from Beijing and John Ruwitch from California. Amy Cheng contributed research from Beijing.