A diplomat who has not been overtly engaged in China’s policymaking toward the United States is widely tipped to become Beijing’s next ambassador to Washington, a personnel change that could shift the tone and tenor of bilateral relations.
Deputy Foreign Minister Qin Gang is reportedly packing his bags for Washington to replace Cui Tiankai, a veteran career diplomat who is seeing out his final months in the US capital after more than eight years in the post.
Qin’s name first popped up in the rumor mill earlier this year when news broke the 68-year-old Cui was poised to retire. Reports said Cui was ordered to stay on for an extra few months for Beijing to consider its approach to the new Joe Biden administration and decide on Cui’s successor.
Qin, 55, is the youngest deputy foreign minister among the four currently serving under Foreign Minister Wang Yi. As chief of the ministry’s Protocol Division, Qin oversees President Xi Jinping’s schedule and itineraries on all his state visits and plays a role in managing talks, banquets and other events attended by the national leader.
Qin’s team also extends the first hand that welcomes foreign dignitaries to China.
Qin has been frequently seen accompanying Xi and leading the president’s entourage, including during visits to the US in 2015 and 2017. News reports say Qin’s meticulousness in managing guests and arranging functions has ensured very little happens outside of preapproved diplomatic script when Xi travels to other countries.
Qin has also served as a Foreign Ministry spokesperson, a role in which he won a reputation for his willingness to retort and rebut. He has at the same time won plaudits from many nationalistic Chinese over social media for his tough, plainspoken style.
In that vein, he has often been unsparing in his critical comments on the US and the wider West. His sometimes tough remarks predate the emergence of China’s “wolf warrior diplomacy” – a shift under Xi from China’s traditional avoidance of controversy and the use of cooperative rhetoric in diplomacy to a more confrontational and combative style.
At a press event in 2014 after then-president Barack Obama wrapped up a whistle-stop tour across America’s Asian allies that reportedly shunned Beijing’s invitation, Qin now famously said China would remain in its place and hold fast to its stance regardless if the US president visited or not.
“We would welcome [Obama to] visit China, but cozying up to the US in exchange for the president’s visit is the last thing Beijing would do and the US should ditch any illusions,” said Qin at a time when the two superpowers were not yet at direct loggerheads.
In his current role as deputy foreign minister, Qin’s purview also includes European Union affairs and ties with its member states. He also served from 2010-11 in China’s embassy in London.
Qin has been widely seen as a rising diplomatic star, not least because he is believed to have earned Xi’s trust through his proven track record on the front lines of diplomatic engagement.
A cultural attaché with Beijing’s embassy in Mexico City who previously worked at the Chinese Foreign Ministry’s North America Division in Beijing told Asia Times that Qin was among a handful of vetted candidates being groomed and primed to fill the vacancies when incumbent top envoys in the US, the United Kingdom and the United Nations retire.
At the same time, the diplomat said he was not sure if Qin’s lack of exposure and experience in the US would be an asset or a liability.
“The fact that Beijing is taking time to post him to Washington can be a sign that no formal decision is made yet, given that Qin is seldom involved in Beijing’s interactions with the US other than arranging Xi’s two visits to the country,” said the diplomat, who asked not to be named as he was not authorized to speak to the media.
“All incumbent and former Chinese ambassadors to the US were very senior and experienced who either headed the ministry’s North America Division or were veterans steeped in the cut and thrust of the China-US ties, but Qin is not and appointing him will break the tradition.”
He said if Qin was eventually thrust into the role of managing Beijing’s most important foreign affairs post, then it could mark a shift in Xi’s overall thinking about the US relationship and how his message is conveyed.
The attache added that sending Qin to Washington should not be interpreted as Beijing “downgrading” ties as Qin would still hold the rank of deputy foreign minister.
Reading the diplomatic tea leaves is difficult, to be sure, but some observers saw the recent appointment of Zheng Zeguang – who had been posted to the US for years – to head the Chinese embassy in London as an indication that Beijing is now mandating diplomats to rotate and change from one country to another.
The Ming Pao Chinese-language newspaper speculated that Zheng’s and likely Qin’s top rank appointments may indicate that country-specific knowledge and experience may be less integral as previously, with emphasis instead on staff with a proven ability to implement to a tee Beijing’s policies and orders.
Drew Thompson, a former Pentagon official overseeing China policy who is now a professor of public policy at the National University of Singapore, told reporters that Cui – the outgoing Chinese ambassador who reportedly understood US politics well – acted as a certain diplomatic buffer with his gravitas and dignity when relations hit fever pitch in recent years.
“It’s hard to find someone who thinks poorly of Cui in DC,” said Thompson. He wondered if Qin, known for his tougher rhetoric and style and close ties to Xi, would be viewed similarly in Washington in an era of already frayed and potentially worsening bilateral ties.