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Former Minister’s Disappearance Risks ‘Paralyzing’ China’s System, Analysts Warn

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Questions about former Chinese foreign minister Qin Gang’s fate remain unanswered after the Chinese government abruptly replaced him with his predecessor, Wang Yi, on Tuesday. Analysts say the opaque nature of his removal will reduce global confidence in China and increase uncertainties that eventually may paralyze China’s governance system.

“China’s system is compromised,” Alfred Wu, an expert on Chinese politics at the National University of Singapore, or NUS, told VOA. “When the checks and balances in the system are gone, it will force China to depend entirely on one person’s decision and there could be a lot of ‘surprises’ that might eventually rattle the system.”

Following his abrupt removal, the foreign ministry initially erased all information related to Qin from the website, but by Friday morning local time, some of his meeting records reappeared. Analysts say that reflects a lack of coordination between different government departments, and it also suggests that China’s top leadership still views Qin’s case as problematic.

“They don’t know how to handle Qin’s removal appropriately and it shows that his case remains unresolved,” said Wu from NUS.

The 57-year-old career diplomat was originally one of Chinese leader Xi Jinping’s most trusted aides, but since he disappeared from the public’s view after meeting counterparts from Vietnam and Sri Lanka on June 25, the outside world has been seeking clues that may explain the mysterious downfall of a rising star in the Chinese Communist Party.

FILE - China's new Foreign Minister Wang Yi is shown in Jakarta, Indonesia, July 12, 2023. Wang is both predecessor and successor of former foreign minister Qin Gang.

FILE – China’s new Foreign Minister Wang Yi is shown in Jakarta, Indonesia, July 12, 2023. Wang is both predecessor and successor of former foreign minister Qin Gang.

After initially attributing his disappearance to “health issues,” the Chinese government has refused to comment on the case in recent days. The lack of explanation triggered unsubstantiated speculation online and abroad.

During the regular foreign ministry press briefing on Wednesday, Mao Ning, the foreign ministry’s spokesperson, avoided a series of questions related to Qin and his removal. She repeatedly referred journalists to the brief statement issued by the top decision-making body of China’s rubber-stamp parliament or a report released by the state-run Xinhua News agency.

“The decision adopted by the fourth meeting of the Standing Committee of the 14th National People’s Congress and the presidential decree of the People’s Republic of China has made it really clear. Please refer to that,” she said. None of the exchanges were included in the official transcript released by the Chinese foreign ministry.

Some experts think the Chinese government’s reluctance to offer a clear explanation of Qin’s removal shows the actual cause is more than just a “health problem.”

“Beijing shouldn’t have to be so secretive about the reason for his dismissal if it were just a health issue,” Chang Wu-Ueh, an expert on Chinese politics at Tamkang University in Taiwan, told VOA.

He said the fact that Qin maintains the title of state councilor means the Communist Party hasn’t finalized its investigation into the real issue.

Varying views

Qin’s removal comes at a crucial time for China as it tries to deepen diplomatic influence around the world. It also follows efforts to re-establish bilateral communication between high-level officials from China and the United States. Wu from NUS thinks the removal of Qin and the lack of proper explanation of the incident will deepen democratic countries’ skepticism toward China as a reliable partner.

“The latest survey released by Pew Research Center shows the level of negative views of China reached historic high in many countries,” he told VOA, adding that Beijing’s handling of Qin’s case will further reinforce the unfavorable views of China among high-income countries.

But for countries in the Global South, which generally have more favorable views of China, according to the survey from Pew, Qin’s abrupt dismissal may not have the same negative impact as it does with advanced economies.

“The most important thing for these countries is whether China can deliver substance when dealing with them and whether they can maintain stable bilateral relations with China or not,” said Moritz Rudolf, a fellow at Yale Law School’s Paul Tsai China Center.

By re-appointing Wang Yi as foreign minister, Wu said, Beijing wants to show that an experienced figure will be at the helm of its foreign policy apparatus. “For China, it makes sense for the top diplomat to take care of the job of its No. 2 diplomat, and they think the outside world should be satisfied with the arrangement,” he said.

Isolated leadership

Qin’s mysterious downfall isn’t the only incident in the past few months that raises questions about the long-term impact of China’s “one-man rule” under Xi Jinping. In recent days, Chinese media reported the deaths of two top military commanders, but the delayed revelation and vague explanation of their deaths have caused unsubstantiated rumors to circulate.

Some experts say those incidents reflect the “inner opacity” of China’s governance system. “Elite politics is so secretive that even other top officials in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs may not be well-informed of Qin’s situation,” Neil Thomas, a fellow for Chinese Politics at the Asia Society Policy Institute, told VOA.

He said that such uncertainty could “paralyze bureaucratic decision-making” if lower-level officials are worried about the political risk of taking any initiatives not pre-approved from the top.

Other analysts contend Qin’s removal is one of a series of public setbacks for Xi that shows China’s top leadership is becoming increasingly isolated. “It’s all about Xi’s own ideas, which is control-oriented, and he wants to have his people in place,” said Ian Johnson, a senior fellow for China studies at the Council on Foreign Relations.

Johnson told VOA that the setbacks could be precursors to China becoming a country with a slower economy and an aging leader who surrounds himself with cronies. “That implies a less powerful China,” he says.

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