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China's foreign minister hasn't been seen in a month. Analysts aren't optimistic

JUANA SUMMERS, HOST:

Almost exactly one month ago, China's foreign minister, Qin Gang, had a meeting in Beijing with Russia's deputy foreign minister, as reported by state TV.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #1: (Speaking Mandarin).

SUMMERS: And then Qin vanished. He's not been seen in public since. It's a remarkably long absence for such a high-profile official. And as NPR's John Ruwitch reports, it's raising some questions.

JOHN RUWITCH, BYLINE: One place where there were a lot of questions was Aspen, Colo., at an annual security forum that took place last week. China's ambassador, Xie Feng, was asked about it and didn't have much to say. Secretary of State Antony Blinken was asked about it. And here's national security adviser Jake Sullivan being asked about it.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #2: Do you expect to meet him again?

JAKE SULLIVAN: We don't know.

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #2: Literally, there's no intelligence on this.

SULLIVAN: We genuinely don't know. We don't know. All we know is that...

RUWITCH: Unconfirmed rumors about Qin's fate have been swirling, linking his absence to everything from political infighting to an extramarital affair. In early July, the foreign ministry said Qin was absent due to unexplained health reasons. But since, ministry spokespeople appear to have backtracked, saying they have no information about him. Whatever the case, analysts think his career is probably over.

KISHORE MAHBUBANI: I suspect whatever has happened to him is not good news.

RUWITCH: That's Kishore Mahbubani, a former Singapore ambassador to the United Nations and a keen China watcher. China's secretive ruling Communist Party has a long history of officials disappearing, often in purges or for disciplinary reasons. In many, if not most cases these days, they eventually reappear as subjects of investigations and often end up in jail. Mahbubani says in this case, it shouldn't make much practical difference in terms of policy.

MAHBUBANI: The Chinese system is a closed system. We don't know what goes on in within the box (laughter) but we do know that what comes out of the box - fairly stable, predictable policies. And so you can work with the stable, predictable policies regardless of who the personalities are.

RUWITCH: It's worth noting that in China, the foreign minister is not the top foreign policy official. That's the head of the party's foreign affairs commission, Wang Yi, and he hasn't gone anywhere. In fact, he's been filling in for Qin at meetings. Joshua Eisenman, a professor at Notre Dame and author of a new book on China's relations with Africa, is less sure that Qin's disappearance is inconsequential. China wants to deepen its relations with the so-called Global South and regularly extols the benefits of its political system as an alternative to Western democracy.

JOSHUA EISENMAN: And it's in this context that the foreign minister's unexplained disappearance has real negative consequences for China's image and influence. It calls Beijing's global leadership into question.

RUWITCH: Deng Yuwen, a former editor at a party newspaper, says Qin's disappearance may also have implications for our understanding of Chinese leader Xi Jinping's authority. Qin was believed to be close to Xi and got two important assignments in quick succession, first as ambassador to the U.S., then as foreign minister late last year. But he adds one caveat.

DENG YUWEN: (Non-English language spoken).

RUWITCH: "Until we know the precise reason for Qin's absence," he says, "it'll be hard to know if there are implications for Xi's power." Nadege Rolland, a distinguished fellow at the National Bureau of Asian Research, says there's at least one takeaway.

NADEGE ROLLAND: That whole story is a reminder. It's an illustration of how the party state operates and its nature. It's a cautionary tale.

RUWITCH: Soon, we may learn more about it. The leaders of China's Parliament are slated on Tuesday to discuss appointments and dismissals of officials. It's unclear, though, if Qin is on the agenda. John Ruwitch, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

John Ruwitch
John Ruwitch is a correspondent with NPR's international desk. He covers Chinese affairs.
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