This article was originally published by Radio Free Asia and is reprinted with permission.
China’s foreign ministry on Monday brushed aside questions about the whereabouts of Foreign Minister Qin Gang, who hasn’t been seen in public for nearly three weeks, sparking a storm of media speculation over the reasons for his apparent disappearance.
Asked about a report in London’s Times newspaper mentioning widespread rumors that Qin is currently under investigation for having an affair with Phoenix TV reporter Fu Xiaotian, foreign ministry spokeswoman Mao Ning said: “I have no information to provide.”
Qin has been notably absent from high-profile diplomatic meetings since he met with the foreign ministers of Sri Lanka and Vietnam, and with the Russian deputy foreign minister in Beijing on June 25.
“I suggest you check the website of the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs,” Mao told a regular news briefing in Beijing on Monday.
His most recent mention on the foreign ministry website was during Mao’s June 26 briefing, in which she gave a brief account of his meeting with the Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Roman Rudenko.
Mao said China’s diplomatic activities were “proceeding normally.”
However, her answers were omitted from official records of the briefing that were later published to the foreign ministry’s website.
A full version of the press conference live-streamed by a Taiwanese TV station can be found on YouTube.
Media speculation that Qin had been sacked grew when his photo and profile link were not found on the page of “major officials” on the Ministry of Foreign Affairs’ website.
But this is misleading because the minister’s photo and profile doesn’t normally appear there, even in the past. Instead, the ministry has a special page dedicated to the minister, with details of his recent remarks and activities, and Qin Gang still appears there.
Former US ambassador
Before becoming foreign minister, Qin was China’s ambassador to the United States and known as a a “wolf warrior” – combative Chinese diplomats who are quick to denounce perceived criticism of China.
A close ally of party leader Xi Jinping, he stepped down in January after being promoted by Xi – which makes the questions being openly asked about him extremely politically sensitive.
Qin was the first ambassador to Washington to be directly promoted to foreign minister in 20 years, as well as the first to be appointed outside of a National People’s Congress annual session. His predecessors Li Zhaoxing and Yang Jiechi both served as vice ministers of foreign affairs before being promoted.
When Qin was ambassador, Fu interviewed him for Phoenix TV in Washington on March 24, 2022, as part of the channel’s “Talk With World Leaders” series, asking him about a video call a few days earlier between Xi and U.S. President Joe Biden and China’s position on Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
Qin’s continued absence from the public eye comes after foreign ministry spokesman Wang Wenbin said on July 11 that Qin wouldn’t be attending forthcoming meetings of ASEAN foreign ministers “for physical reasons.”
Wang Yi, who heads the ruling Chinese Communist Party Central Committee’s foreign affairs office attended those meetings in Qin’s stead.
Qin’s scheduled meetings with EU diplomats in late June were also canceled.
The pro-China Sing Tao Daily newspaper cited “reports” in a July 10 story suggesting that Qin had disappeared from public view because he had been infected with COVID-19, citing Wang Wenbin’s “failure to deny” such reports when asked by journalists about Qin’s whereabouts on July 7.
The Times reported that Qin’s disappearance from the public eye came amid “speculation that he has fallen foul of the leadership and even rumors of an affair with a well-known television presenter,” citing local media reports that Fu and her baby son had also recently disappeared from public view.
”The rumors are that he’s sick, but we’re all just reading tea leaves here because nobody really knows the truth,” YouTuber Jiang Taigong commented in a July 15 video. “We’ve only had vague comments from the Chinese Communist Party, so the guesses are coming thick and fast.”