China airbrushed away its foreign minister. Why?

Qin Gang, then China's foreign minister, in Beijing on Feb. 21, 2023. (Greg Baker/AFP/Getty Images)
Qin Gang, then China's foreign minister, in Beijing on Feb. 21, 2023. (Greg Baker/AFP/Getty Images)

For nearly eight months, diplomats around the world have puzzled over the sudden disappearance and firing of China’s foreign minister, Qin Gang. China watchers have shared plenty of speculation, but Beijing has said nothing officially — and even the CIA doesn’t know for certain what happened.

Theories about Qin’s fall from power have focused on his relationship with a Chinese TV journalist named Fu Xiaotian. Qin, though married to another woman, was linked publicly to Fu after she had a child with an unidentified father through an American surrogate in 2022, just before he returned from his post as ambassador to Washington. That created a storm on Chinese social media. But was it enough to demolish the career of the foreign minister?

Qin was widely resented among his colleagues because he had risen so rapidly within the Foreign Ministry, U.S. officials say. He was viewed as a pet of Chinese President Xi Jinping, for whom he’d served as protocol chief, which peeved colleagues and produced what one U.S. official calls a “blood feud” with his predecessor, Wang Yi, who now oversees all foreign policy. But that resentment doesn’t explain his catastrophic downfall, either.

The most tantalizing theories involve speculation that Fu was an agent of a foreign intelligence service and that her spying compromised Qin. One U.S. diplomat told me he heard that Qin was a Russian agent. No, said a former U.S. official with long-standing dealings with Beijing, Chinese officials believe that Fu served as a British agent for more than a decade. The spy stories are juicy, but I haven’t been able to confirm them.

Fu Xiaotian in Boao, China, on March 28, 2019. (Bao fan/Imagine China)
Fu Xiaotian in Boao, China, on March 28, 2019. (Bao fan/Imagine China)

We’re left with a mystery that underlines how opaque China’s one-party state remains and how hard it is for the CIA, probably the world’s premier intelligence service, to penetrate its walls of secrecy. “We’ve looked far and wide for what happened to Qin, but it’s as if he disappeared, with his photo airbrushed out of the picture as in the Stalin era in the Soviet Union”, said a senior Biden administration official who follows China closely.

“We do not have any relevant information to offer”, said a spokesperson from the Chinese Embassy when asked about Qin’s disappearance and the spy rumors. A CIA spokesperson also declined to comment. So did a spokesperson for the British Foreign Office in London.

Qin disappeared from public view June 25, and he was officially removed from his post a month later. Intriguingly, the day he vanished, Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Andrei Rudenko visited Beijing for high-level talks.

Did Rudenko bring evidence that Qin was compromised? That’s the version recounted by the former U.S. official. He says the Russian Federal Security Service had previously warned the Chinese Ministry of State Security that Fu was an agent of Britain’s Secret Intelligence Service. But the Security Ministry had been reluctant to move against the foreign minister without “rock solid” evidence, the former U.S. official explained.

Press reports have speculated for months that Fu could have been a spy, and some suggested Britain might have recruited her. The Biden administration has heard these rumors and pressed both the CIA and Britain about them without getting any confirmation, the senior administration official said.

Whatever the trigger, Qin, 57, was arrested and investigated soon after his June disappearance, the senior administration official said. In the version recounted by the former U.S. official, the foreign minister didn’t know of his lover’s purported intelligence ties and tried to kill himself after confronted with the information. According to this account, Qin was hospitalized at a special facility for senior Chinese military and political officials, known as “Hospital 301”. There’s no independent confirmation of that.

Fu, 40, also disappeared and is almost certain to have been arrested and imprisoned. Like Qin, she had a meteoric rise, becoming a star host for state-controlled Phoenix TV’s “Talk With World Leaders” program until she was dropped in 2022. That year, Fu’s son, named Er-Kin, was born to the surrogate mother in the United States.

The ill-fated relationship between Qin and Fu began around 2010 in Britain, according to the Financial Times, when they both were working there. Fu, born in the city of Chongqing, earned a master’s degree at Churchill College in Cambridge in 2007 and joined the Phoenix media company. Qin served in London as a junior diplomat from 1995 to 1999 and was posted there a second time as a minister-counselor from 2010 to 2011, according to his official Foreign Ministry biography. That’s probably when he met Fu.

Qin rose quickly after he returned to Beijing in 2011 following his second London posting, serving as spokesman for the Foreign Ministry for three years and then, until 2017, as the ministry’s director of protocol, where he was responsible for organizing Xi’s trips. In that role, he is said by current and former U.S. officials to have developed close ties with the Chinese president.

Chinese President Xi Jinping walks by Foreign Minister Qin Gang at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing on March 13, 2023. (Andy Wong/AP)
Chinese President Xi Jinping walks by Foreign Minister Qin Gang at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing on March 13, 2023. (Andy Wong/AP)

This warm relationship was aided by Qin’s wife, Lin Yan, who became friendly with Xi’s wife, Peng Liyuan. According to the senior administration official, Qin’s wife made mooncakes for Xi’s wife, almost as if she were a family member. Qin’s intimacy with the Xi family probably helped him skip the promotion ladder that is normal in China and ascend to foreign minister at a relatively young age. This rapid rise fostered resentment among his ministry peers.

“Qin’s obsequiousness toward Xi was an affront to the rigid hierarchy cultivated by the Foreign Ministry’s founder, Zhou Enlai”, explained Christopher K. Johnson, a former CIA senior China analyst who now heads China Strategies Group, a political-risk consulting firm. “The resultant squabbling left Chinese diplomats divided and distracted as Xi pushed harder for the Communist Party to usurp their ministry’s role in shaping foreign policy”.

As Qin rose, his purported affair with Fu would have become problematic for any foreign intelligence service that had contact with her. Spy services like to have well-placed agents, but not in such prominent places that they cause flaps. The danger of recruiting agents who eventually rise to lofty positions was described to me by a CIA source decades ago as “the prime minister problem”. But, again, there’s no proof this was a problem for Qin.

Fu’s position was awkward after Qin returned home in early 2023 to become foreign minister. She began posting references on Chinese and Western social media to her baby, whom she described as “precious baby son Er-Kin” in a post on Twitter last April, as she was flying home for the last time from the United States to China. She had posted the previous month that the baby’s father wasn’t American, and around Qin’s March 19 birthday, she posted a birthday greeting to the anonymous father, according to the Financial Times.

An abiding mystery in this story is the coincidence — perhaps — of the senior Russian diplomat’s visit to Beijing on the very day China’s foreign minister vanished. Whatever intelligence Rudenko might have brought, his deeper mission was probably to remind Xi of Russia’s staying power. The day before, renegade mercenary boss Yevgeniy Prigozhin sent his private army marching on Moscow — momentarily rocking the Kremlin. Though Prigozhin’s revolt was crushed, and he died two months later in a mysterious plane crash, Putin would have wanted to quickly remind Xi that he was in control.

The takeaway for me is that Russia isn’t the hapless junior partner it sometimes appears in its relationship with Beijing. Xi’s China might have growing wealth and power, but Putin remains a master of intelligence and political manipulation. “Putin is a case officer”, observes the senior administration official.

The fall of the foreign minister and the TV star reminds us finally that even in a rigid, one-party state such as China, political life can still turn on the very human foibles of individuals. And it’s a caution, too, of just how hard it is to penetrate the curtain of secrecy that surrounds the Chinese leadership.

David Ignatius writes a twice-a-week foreign affairs column for The Washington Post. His latest novel is “The Paladin.”

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