China refused to disclose on Wednesday why Qin Gang had been sacked as foreign minister, insisting it was releasing information “normally” despite him having not been seen publicly for more than a month.
Qin was removed from office by Beijing’s top lawmaking body on Tuesday after just 207 days in the job, following weeks of speculation that the former ambassador to the United States and confidant of President Xi Jinping had fallen out of favour.
Asked at a regular briefing about his removal, spokeswoman Mao Ning referred journalists to a state news agency article and declined to offer any further information.
“Xinhua has already published information. You can refer to that,” Mao said.
Asked how she evaluated Qin’s brief stint as foreign minister, Mao said she was “probably not the right person to answer that question”.
“I don’t think it’s appropriate for me to pass judgment,” she said, insisting that China was “releasing normal information” concerning Qin’s position.
Pressed repeatedly by journalists to provide more details on Qin’s fate, Mao said decisions made Tuesday by China’s top lawmaking body and the president were “very clear”.
“I suggest you all refer to that. I don’t have any additional information,” she said.
“China’s diplomatic activities are all advancing steadily,” Mao added.
Any reference to 57-year-old Qin had been removed from the website of China’s foreign ministry by Wednesday.
A search for his name yielded no results and previous articles about his diplomatic appearances showed a message saying the page “does not exist or has been deleted”.
But his name did appear on other Chinese government websites, including the State Council, the Ministry of Commerce and state media outlets.
Asked about his disappearance from the foreign ministry website, Mao said: “Information on the website of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs is updated according to relevant management regulations.”
Qin has been replaced as foreign minister by top diplomat Wang Yi.
The foreign ministry had dodged questions on Qin for weeks, after previously saying “health reasons” were to blame for his absence.
State media gave no reason on Tuesday for his dismissal but one expert said Qin’s “digital erasure” suggested he had fallen from grace.
“If he were a comrade in good standing who had fallen ill I am not sure that would be happening,” China analyst Bill Bishop wrote in his Sinocism newsletter.
Neil Thomas, a fellow on Chinese politics at the Asia Society Policy Institute, a US think tank, agreed.
“Evidence is emerging suggesting this is indeed a political purge,” Thomas said on Twitter, which is being rebranded as “X”.
– ‘Totally in the dark’ –
China remained tight-lipped for weeks about the fate of Qin, who has not been seen in public since June 25 when he met Russia’s deputy foreign minister Andrey Rudenko in Beijing.
But that did little to stem an explosion of rumours online, some of which claimed the diplomat’s alleged affair with a prominent television anchor had landed him in hot water.
“People from the outside are totally in the dark and the episode illustrates that Chinese politics is becoming increasingly unpredictable and volatile, though under a calm surface,” Ho-fung Hung, an expert in Chinese politics at Johns Hopkins University, told AFP.
Originally from the northeastern city of Tianjin, Qin frequently rubbed shoulders with Xi in an earlier role as chief of the foreign ministry’s protocol department.
His promotion over more experienced candidates, first to US ambassador and then China’s number two diplomat, was attributed to the trust placed in him by Xi directly.
And the sudden fall of the so-called Wolf Warrior diplomat shows that no official is immune to the vicissitudes of Chinese politics — no matter how close they are to the leader, one expert said.
“I think the main implication would be for Chinese officialdom, with the message being that no one is safe, however high they may have risen or however strongly they have been supported by Xi Jinping,” China law expert Neysun Mahboubi told AFP.