China After Qin Gang’s Ouster: The Political Dynamics of Xi Jinping’s One-Man RegimePolitics
Ministers Go Missing
Something unusual appears to be unfolding in Chinese politics. From June 2023 onward, reports vanished on the public movements of Minister of Foreign Affairs Qin Gang. After drawn-out speculation, he was formally removed from this post on July 26 and replaced by one of his predecessors, former State Councilor Wang Yi.
Other prominent leaders have also disappeared from public view. Reports on the movements of Minister of Defense Li Shangfu from August through September also ceased, and he too has reportedly been dismissed from the role. The commander and political commissar of the People’s Liberation Army Rocket Force both disappeared after purportedly being replaced in July. These diplomatic and defense roles are important and sensitive, but what makes these disappearances unusual is that all these officials had been promoted to their positions in the six months prior to being relieved or going missing.
Qin Gang, for example, enjoyed a meteoric rise within the Ministry of Foreign Affairs with the support of Xi Jinping himself. He was inaugurated as ambassador to the United States in July 2021 and soon became a member of the Central Committee of the Chinese Communist Party at the twentieth Party Congress in October 2022. Within a few months he was promoted to Minister of Foreign Affairs. Qin’s rise to the position of state councilor in March this year made him the youngest member of the CCP’s senior leadership.
Various theories are circulating about Qin’s equally meteoric fall, including corruption, adultery, conflicts over policy toward the United States, allegations of espionage, and his being a victim of a power struggle. One recent report in the Wall Street Journal put forward the possibility that Qin was removed due to having fathered an illegitimate child with his mistress during his time as ambassador in Washington, potentially making him a potential intelligence vulnerability. All these theories have some plausibility, but at present there is little reliable information to corroborate them.
However, despite his dismissal from the foreign minister role, Qin remains a member of the State Council, a role of higher political importance. It is unclear why this is the case, and it is also not known if the above-mentioned personnel changes at the PLA Rocket Force and the defense ministry have been made official.
The truth behind these incidents remains a mystery. However, they do reflect recent trends in Chinese politics since the twentieth Party Congress, in October 2022. Below is a look at some of the political dynamics of the consolidated “one-man” political regime that Xi Jinping has built during his time in power and how these dynamics affect personnel appointments and foreign policy.
Power for Xi, Political Conflict for the Elite
At the CCP’s twentieth Congress, General Secretary Xi Jinping asserted his dominance by having all political appointments confirmed in line with his wishes. At least on the surface, China’s political regime was now structured around Xi’s personal power. This was a different power structure from the one that emerged during the era when Jiang Zemin (1989–2002) and Hu Jintao (2002–2012) were in charge, when leadership appointments were characterized by balance between factions and regular, managed transitions of power.
However, if Xi was fully in charge, then why was his rising star, Qin Gang, taken down? How could this happen in a situation where almost all personnel decisions concerning high-level executives are supposedly made with the assent of Xi? Perhaps Xi is not as all-powerful as is rumored.
In my view, this is all happening precisely because the power of the supreme leader has become so thoroughly entrenched. Compared with faction-balanced politics, under a one-man system of personalized rule, subordinates have a strong incentive to compete for recognition by the supreme leader and to attain his favor rather than to challenge him.
There is no political force capable of challenging Xi right now. However, when one person stands out above others, the competition for influence is characterized by what might be termed “court politics.” In such an environment, personnel appointments and policy influence become about who can gain the supreme leader’s trust and best represent his will and policies.
Such elite competition is more likely to be accompanied by vicious struggles and sudden changes in personnel than in the case of a balanced system. With Xi’s domination complete, and with no successor in sight, it is likely that these kinds of subsurface political power struggles will flourish in the future rather than disappear.
Thus, Qin’s ouster is more a reflection of the weakness in the operations of Xi’s regime than a reversal of his personal power. The disappearance of the defense minister and senior leaders of the PLA Rocket Force demonstrates this dynamic.
As conflict with the United States deepens, these dismissals also show how suspected American ties have become even more problematic for China’s elite. As it is, there is ample historical precedent for those within the CCP to use the specter of “enemy agents lurking within” in the struggle for power and to eliminate political opponents.
Therefore, US-China superpower tensions and Xi’s consolidation of power compound the elite competition dynamic, and will likely make purges a more regular occurrence in Chinese politics.
The Strengthening of Party Guidance
Another recent trend in Chinese politics is the strengthening of CCP party control over state policy functions. China was formerly understood to be a “diffused authoritarian system,” where the CCP symbolically monopolized political authority and had the final word, but the actual policymaking processes were decentralized. Thus, rather than policymaking being undertaken by the party center, a more complex process previously prevailed. However, when Xi Jinping first came to power in 2012, he saw this as a problem—specifically, one that undermined the integrity of China’s foreign policy.
Xi soon began asserting more control over the foreign policymaking sphere. A specific goal has been to improve top-down policymaking and coordination functions. In May 2018, the Central Foreign Affairs Commission was established by upgrading the FALG or Central Foreign Affairs Leading Group, to an official committee within the CCP Central Committee.
The predecessor FALG was a subcommittee that functioned as a forum for coordinating the various departments involved in foreign affairs. Its meetings were only held on an ad hoc basis, and there was no daily oversight of the departments, diffusing the policymaking process. However, at a June 2023 meeting of the Central Foreign Affairs Commission, Xi emphasized the utmost importance of “defending the authority of the Party center and guiding the Party’s foreign operations through centralized and unified leadership.”
Xi has also increased direct and indirect oversight of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Symbolizing this is the appointment of Qi Yu, former deputy director of the CCP’s Organization Department, to the role of party secretary of the Committee of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
In China, CCP committees are established within each government agency to oversee and influence policymaking. In the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the Party Secretary is the number-two position after MOFA’s director—usually the minister of foreign Affairs. ahat is unusual about Qi’s appointment to the is that he lacks diplomatic experience, having previously supervised the CCP’s internal organization and staff appointments from the Organization Department.
More than ever, MOFA will be wary of the risks of not thoroughly implementing the directives of Xi Jinping and the Party—likely leading to excessive responses to international developments.
What are some of the likely characteristics of China’s foreign policy under the consolidated “one-man” Xi Jinping regime going forward?
First, we should expect to see more inconsistency in response to international developments and some blurring in the details of foreign policy implementation. This is not to say that there will be frequent tensions or shifts in major policy orientations, though. I believe that, despite the recent turbulence and changes in top diplomatic and defense leadership roles, the actual overall direction of China’s policy toward the United States, for example, remains the same. That is, while Xi will seek to stabilize relations with Washington to some degree, he remains convinced that China cannot trust the United States and needs to pursue comprehensive competition in political, diplomatic, cognitive, economic, and military domains.
However, at the level of personnel changes, it is likely that there will be frequent tinkering and instability as interpersonal competition deepens below the level of supreme leader. While Xi’s power base remains entrenched, this kind of volatility may lead to “lapses” in the execution of foreign policy and some degree of incoherence.
Second, “wolf warrior diplomacy” will likely continue. The interpersonal competition and the Party’s increased guidance of MOFA is the background to the ministry’s seeming overreaction to international events and the hardline behavior and attitudes of diplomats seen in recent years.
The Xi Jinping administration is focused on enhancing its external influence and aims to break the ideological hegemony of the West by acquiring “discourse power.” In this context, this means the ability to propagate one’s own preferred geopolitical narratives while sidelining those that work against favored representations of China. For example, since the beginning of the global COVID-19 pandemic, Chinese diplomats have been particularly forceful in responding to questions about the origins of the virus and China’s responsibility. This has resulted in the use of undiplomatic language to accuse Western governments of being responsible for the outbreak.
This trend is likely to continue, as demonstrated by the recent reaction to the release of ALPS-treated water from the Fukushima nuclear power plant. In this case, Chinese diplomats and the domestic media came together to not only strongly criticize Japan, but also to consciously spread fake news.
Up until now, the personal power of Xi Jinping has only increased as his administration has become entrenched. While he retains a monopoly on power, though, other forms of instability in the workings of the regime have become apparent. This is likely to persist the older Xi gets due to the unresolved question of his successor. Power struggles below the level of supreme leader will likely intensify as political elites try to position themselves behind Xi. This dynamic will in turn impact China’s diplomacy—a risk that must be factored in when trying to understand the actions and risks of China’s foreign policy going forward under an ever-more consolidated Xi Jinping regime.
(Originally published in Japanese on October 5, 2023. Banner photo: China’s Minister of Foreign Affairs Qin Gang greets visiting United States Secretary of State Anthony Blinken, at left, before their meeting at the Diaoyutai State Guesthouse in Beijing on June 18, 2023. © AFP.)