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Let me be honest with you. All these days I have avoided writing about Qin Gang, the Chinese foreign minister, not seen in public for about a month now. For, Asian Institute for China and IOR Studies had taken a conscious decision not to comment on rumours or carry fake stories about developments in our area of study. After all, the motto of the institute is, “Seek Truth from Facts” (Book of Han), for “Truth Alone Triumphs” (Mundaka Upanishad). And I didn’t, and still don’t know the real facts in this case. There are only rumours and speculations in front of me. But surely one or more of them could be the fact(s) we are looking for. And, I have been trying to ascertain it, like all others in the world.

The background: Answering a pointed question at a regular briefing at the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MoFA), the spokesperson gave health issues as the reason for Qin Gang not attending the ASEAN Plus-EAS Foreign Ministers Meetings in Jakarta on July 13-14. Former foreign minister and now director of the ruling Communist Party’s foreign affairs commission Wang Yi filled in for him. No other queries on the matter were answered directly in the following days, except for terse phrases like, not heard about it, not aware of it, the MoFA is functioning normally, etc. Earlier the European Union was told at the last moment that the dates (July 10- 11) for its foreign policy chief Josep Borrell’s visit were ‘no more available”. As no reasons were given, a surprised EU took it as some sort of a snub, or an angry message till it learnt of the missing minister. And then, the rumour mills went into overdrive with scandalous stories, even inside China.

Very briefly, the rumours. One: Let’s not include the ‘health issues’ explanation by the MoFA spokesperson as a rumour until proven otherwise. Two: Qin Gang had an extramarital relationship with a US-based Chinese TV journalist of a Hong Kong-licenced TV channel (mostly with mainland funding), and has a child out of wedlock. Three: He was complicit in a huge corruption scandal involving infrastructure buildup related to China’s strategic nuclear rocket forces. Four: He had some part in an alleged spy scandal involving the US-based son of a PLA general. Some rumours even said the TV journalist was also working for a Western intelligence agency. Curiously, the Chinese internet and social media were not prevented firmly from circulating their own stories, some of them even gorier and more salacious than what has appeared outside the country. Does it indicate that Qin Gang has fallen from grace? Though he has not been replaced as foreign minister, his name, notably, has come down drastically in Chinese news cycles.

Qin Gang looked hale and hearty when last seen walking with Andrei Rudenko, the visiting Russian deputy foreign minister on June 25. So, if the health issue theory is correct, it could most probably be a heart attack, a stroke, or Covid-19. But why didn’t China shut down the rumour mills by the MoFA posting a picture of a convalescing Qin Gang if he had suffered a heart attack? If it was a stroke and he is still in an ICU, even a cryptic medical bulletin once in a while would also have shut them up. New versions of Covid-19 do not bind patients to bed this long unless it is uniquely complicated.

So, is either of the stories, of corruption involving the rocket forces or the extramarital affair, likely true? Not many details about the alleged rocket forces scandal that convinces one are available on the net, though the absence of information doesn’t rule out the possibility completely. Now, let’s look at some developments about the TV personality, all of them not entirely rumours. She had interviewed Qin Gang about two years ago when the latter was China’s ambassador to the US. Social media watchers in Taiwan and the US claim that the lady had a baby within a year of the interview. She had posted her picture with the baby and her parents from a ‘mansion in California’. The child’s father was missing from the picture. Some inquisitors claimed that the mansion had a rental value of some tens of thousands of dollars, ordinarily beyond the reach of a TV journalist. But then, she might have been staying there as a guest of its owner or tenant. However, she seems to have shown interest in buying it, and its current value is said to be about $15 million. Then came her April 10 post in front of a private jet on the tarmac, and some inquisitors claimed that the jet’s tail number indicated that it had headed for Beijing from Los Angeles soon afterwards. They claim that she hasn’t been heard from since then.

High officials, senior cadres or even billionaire businessmen who annoy the ruling party going missing like this is not uncommon in China. The 2018 disappearance of Meng Hongwei, the Interpol chief disappearing on a visit to China, only to reappear after weeks, before being jailed for 13 years on corruption charges. Tech billionaire Jack Ma went missing in 2021 after criticising the country’s financial regulations but returned after paying billions in fines ‘for committing financial and administrative irregularities’, and agreeing to toe the Party line and participate in social welfare initiatives under Xi Jinping’s thoughts on common prosperity.

Rumour mills had gone into overdrive with stories of a coup in Beijing last year. At the beginning of Covid-19, Xi Jinping had gone missing for about 15 days after returning from an official trip to Myanmar followed by an inspection tour of Yunnan province. China maintained silence on both occasions. Rumours had also spread about a vice minister from the Ministry of State Security going missing for a few weeks. (Normally, a vice minister is not a junior minister, but is the top bureaucrat in a ministry or large government organisation.) Subsequently, the Chinese posted a picture of him in a meeting, quelling the rumours.

Information vacuum and unnecessary secrecy breed suspicions and speculations. So, if Qin Gang is actually ill as claimed by the MoFA spokesperson, can we expect a news item about him attending a meeting anytime soon? If he is not ill and is under detention by the Communist Party’s Central Discipline Inspection Commission, we all know what kind of a picture will likely appear in the newspapers. In the latter case, will the development explode in Xi Jinping’s face as he had personally picked his protégé for the ambassadorial assignment, and only in about two years’ time as the new foreign minister over the heads of several deserving seniors in the Foreign Ministry? No doubt, there would be many in the MoFA and the Party waiting for an opportune moment to pull down Qin Gang, his closeness to Xi Jinping notwithstanding. If Qin Gang was indeed corrupt and Xi Jinping still decides to retain him to protect his (Xi’s own) image, all his talk on the need for cadres to maintain high moral standards, etc. will sound hollow to the whole world.

Sincerely, this is one such occasion when one genuinely, if grudgingly, wishes somebody is really ill and would come back healthy and fit to resume duties soon, rather than seeing him standing in a courtroom waiting for the inevitable. A courtroom, where the chances of getting a fair trial are remote.

Title image courtesy: NPR

Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed by the author do not necessarily reflect the views of the Government of India and Defence Research and Studies

Article Courtesy: Asian Institute of China and IOR Studies

By Muraleedharan Nair

After completing studies at the University of Kerala, Muraleedharan Nair did a Post-graduate programme in Marketing and Advertising from Bhavan’s Rajendra Prasad Institute of Communication and Management, Mumbai. He has held various positions in the Government, in India, and abroad. Besides publishing research papers in various books and journals, Mr Nair writes commentaries in newspapers and magazines regularly. He also participates in conferences, seminars, and panel discussions on strategic affairs at different universities, think tanks, TV channels, All India Radio, etc. A Senior Fellow with the Centre for Public Policy Research, he speaks Urdu and Chinese.