China’s foreign minister, Qin Gang, has been removed from office after disappearing from public view 30 days ago, abruptly ending the career of a diplomat who leaped to the top as one of President Xi Jinping’s most trusted rising stars, the Chinese government announced on Tuesday.
The official decision that Mr. Qin had been replaced — and his spot taken by the former foreign minister, Wang Yi — capped weeks of speculation about his fate. As speculation grew, the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs claimed that Mr. Qin had health problems. But the brief announcement by the National People’s Congress Standing Committee, a council of China’s legislature that formally appoints senior officials, did not mention health or any other reasons.
The lack of clarity appears sure to fan speculation among Chinese commentators and seasoned observers about the circumstances behind one of the most dramatic falls of a high-flying Chinese official in recent times. One widespread theory is that his problems may be related to personal transgressions, possibly an affair with a Chinese television personality while he was an ambassador in the United States.
Whatever the veracity of those theories, Mr. Qin’s downfall is an awkward moment for Mr. Xi, who catapulted Mr. Qin into his powerful role as minister ahead of other older, longer-serving diplomats.
“If people wanted displayed on a wide screen the opacity of the Chinese system, and how that can — even if just temporarily — hobble the execution of policy, then they’ve got a prime example of it here,” Richard McGregor, a senior fellow at the Lowy Institute in Sydney who studies Chinese foreign policy, said in a telephone interview. Still, he added, Mr. Xi was too powerful to suffer much damage from Mr. Qin’s fall.
“It’s not a make a make-or-break episode for Mr. Xi, but his critics will get a thrill out of it, although they would not dare say so in public,” Mr. McGregor said. “If there’s any substance to the rumors, it’s a reminder that in the party system, your private life can be as much subject to regulation as your public duties. Though, in this case, the conduct of an ambassador has national security implications.”
Mr. Qin’s successor, Mr. Wang, appears to be a safe pair of hands after the drama of the past month. Mr. Wang, 69, is a senior diplomat who is also the director of the Chinese Communist Party’s Foreign Affairs Commission Office, making him a primary policy adviser of Mr. Xi.
Mr. Qin, 57, was appointed China’s ambassador to Washington in July 2021, and 17 months later was promoted to foreign minister, singling him out as a trusted protégé of Mr. Xi.
Earlier, Mr. Qin had served as a foreign ministry spokesman, a diplomat in London and as a protocol officer, a job that brought him close to Mr. Xi during foreign visits. Mr. Qin graduated from the University of International Relations, a school in Beijing linked to China’s security service, and worked as an assistant in the Beijing bureau of United Press International before joining the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in 1992.
As a protocol officer for Mr. Xi, Mr. Qin was exhaustively punctilious, said Pavel Slunkin, who was a Belarusian diplomat involved in arranging a visit by Mr. Xi to Belarus in 2015. During the visit, Mr. Slunkin said, Mr. Qin called at around 2 a.m. and asked to immediately go to a museum that Mr. Xi was scheduled to visit, so Mr. Qin could recheck every detail of the plans, including exactly when music would strike up as Mr. Xi walked up some stairs.
“His subordinates and the embassy’s staff were afraid to approach him. So the communication with him was strictly hierarchical,” Mr. Slunkin, now a visiting fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations, said of Mr. Qin in emailed answers to questions. Mr. Qin, he said, “obviously enjoyed his special position being close to the body — to Xi.”
As foreign minister since late 2022, Mr. Qin was at the forefront of efforts to pull China out of Covid-era diplomatic isolation, and to try to ease tensions with the United States and other Western countries. But he was also a combative exponent of Mr. Xi’s vision of China as a confident world power, impatient with criticisms from other governments, and rarely missed an opportunity to exalt Mr. Xi.
“The human race once again stands at the crossroads of history,” Mr. Qin told a news conference in Beijing in March. “President Xi Jinping has pointed out the right path for global governance from the high ground of the world, history and humankind.”