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China replaces foreign minister Qin Gang, who disappeared from public eye last month

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

What happened to China's foreign minister, Qin Gang? He disappeared from public view exactly one month ago today with no explanation. And then today, China said it's removing him from office. Qin Gang was a diplomat on the rise. Before his time as foreign minister, he was China's ambassador to the U.S. and came on this program to warn the U.S. over its support for Taiwan.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

QIN GANG: If, you know, the Taiwanese authorities, emboldened by the United States, keep going down the road for independence, it most likely involve China and the United States, the two big countries, in a military conflict.

INSKEEP: That was then. And now he's out. NPR international correspondent Emily Feng is here. Hey there, Emily.

EMILY FENG, BYLINE: Hey, Steve.

INSKEEP: What happened to Qin Gang?

FENG: So long story short, we still don't know. We just have a little bit of news today that he is going to be removed from his post. And Wang Yi, this seasoned Chinese diplomat who just gave up the job, actually, is going to be reappointed. And this is a twist that the rumor mill, which was running full speed in the last month, did not see coming.

Here's a little bit about Qin Gang. Before he became China's ambassador to the U.S., he really became a household name in China when he was a sharp-tongued Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokesperson in Beijing. He's a very experienced handler in European affairs. And then he cut his teeth later on handling protocol - these are the diplomatic rituals of sorts - for Chinese leader Xi Jinping when he started making state visits abroad. And that's how Qin really got to know Xi Jinping, to win his confidence and to go on to become ambassador to the U.S., then foreign minister.

So he's had this really fast rise to diplomatic stardom. And it's really strange as a result that less than one year into this job as foreign minister, he's going to stop doing it.

INSKEEP: Yeah, I'm thinking about all the things that would give someone like him job security that you just mentioned - that he would be close to the president, that he was very publicly a hardliner, a tough guy standing up for the Communist Party line. So why would he lose his job?

FENG: Like with many things these days in Chinese politics, no explanation given. His removal was announced at a very hastily convened meeting of the country's legislature today, and what they discussed at this meeting was only announced in China's evening news. And there was one small line about Qin being removed.

For now, we know that Qin does keep his title as state councilor. This is the equivalent of a U.S. Cabinet-level position. And so this indicates to me that he's not in serious political trouble. He's not totally ousted yet from the political establishment. But something serious is going on.

INSKEEP: Does this seem at all unusual for China's diplomatic corps?

FENG: I mean, absolutely. China's got one of the largest diplomatic corps in the world. They're extremely active post-pandemic trying to shore up its ties with partners and countries in the region. Qin's last public appearance actually was meeting with Russia's deputy foreign minister in Beijing a month ago.

The fact that Wang Yi, who is now the foreign minister, is stepping into this role does mean continuity in foreign relations for China, especially with U.S.-China relations. You know, a lot of U.S. officials have worked with Wang Yi. He's a very experienced diplomat. And he's done the foreign minister job already for about nine years before Qin's appointment late last year. But the fact that Qin has just suddenly disappeared is really disruptive because China's juggling a lot. It's got tensions with the U.S., Russia's war on Ukraine, territorial spats in the Indo-Pacific, just to name a few.

And so when the foreign minister - poof - just disappears, starts cancelling meetings, foreign dignitaries coming to Beijing start getting his deputies at the table instead with no clue about whether the foreign minister is going to come back and whether what you were talking about the month before still holds, that's very disruptive. And the opaqueness with which China is handling its affairs when it has so much international clout is mystifying. You know, it's extraordinary to watch, but it's also really anxiety-inducing.

INSKEEP: A lot of conversation about this the last few days. And now we know part of the answer, but not the whole thing. Emily, thanks.

FENG: Thank you, Steve.

INSKEEP: NPR's Emily Feng. 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.

Emily Feng is NPR's Beijing correspondent.