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Chen Gang charted a rapid rise through the savage world of Chinese elite politics, edging out more experienced candidates to become Xi Jinping’s foreign minister in March before suddenly disappearing without explanation.
With Chen out of public view for a month, analysts, diplomats and officials are trying to make sense of his absence, which threatens to complicate US efforts to revive high-level engagement and China’s attempt to restore foreign confidence in its economy.
“It doesn’t really matter to other countries why he is gone. The fact that he is gone hampers diplomacy with China,” said Neil Thomas, a fellow for China politics at the Asian Society Policy Institute, a US think tank. “The length of time Qin Gang has been out of the public eye is very uncommon.”
According to the State Department’s website, Chen’s last public meeting was on June 25. The ministry blamed “health reasons” for his absence from a regional meeting for Southeast Asia this month.
Chen’s disappearance comes as Xi prepares for a possible meeting with Joe Biden in November at the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation Forum in the United States. Last month, Chen spent five and a half hours with Anthony Blinken during the US Secretary of State’s visit to China. Beijing said Chen’s responsibilities were being taken over by other officials, and that his predecessor Wang Yi, a member of the 24-member party politburo, had kept a full schedule of meetings with visiting foreign delegates in recent weeks.
Bonnie Glaser, a China expert at the German Marshall Fund, said his absence will not affect US-China relations in the long run because the secretary of state implements, and does not set, foreign policy in the Chinese system. But she said that could have repercussions in the short term, noting that Blinken invited Chen to visit Washington when they met in Beijing.
“Obviously this is on the ice until there is greater clarity about whether or not Chen will return to his position. This is a clear example of the impact on US-China relations,” Glaser said. “Wang Yi can only do the work of two people for so long.”
As Beijing’s envoy to Washington from 2021 to 2023 — a period of historic bilateral tensions — Chen has had a difficult time. The Biden administration has kept him at arm’s length, in part because it has deemed him unconcerned about stable relations. While he was given occasional meetings with White House and State Department officials, he had almost no contact with cabinet ministers and struggled to establish contacts on Capitol Hill.
One of the diplomats familiar with the matter said Chen was “removed” in Washington partly as retaliation for not granting access to the US ambassador to China, Nick Burns. He has also been described by some as one of Xi’s “wolf warriors,” a cadre of diplomats known for tongue-lashing their counterparts.
According to people who interacted with Chen in Washington, the ambassador focused on business groups seeking to improve their bottom lines in China and visited US states such as Iowa, where the mood on China was softer.
American officials often dealt directly with Xie Feng, the former top official in Beijing for American affairs. People familiar with the situation said Chen and Xie — who succeeded Chen as ambassador to Washington this year — disliked each other. Despite his close ties to Xi, Chen has frequently been bypassed by his superiors in Beijing in their dealings with the United States, according to several people familiar with the situation.
Despite Chen’s troubles in Washington, he has been promoted to foreign minister, and until the past few weeks, analysts have seen him as one of Xi’s henchmen. Most trusted advisors On international issues, she reportedly came to the attention of the president when he served as Director of Protocol at the State Department between 2014 and 2017. “No choice of leader in the current leadership is clearer than Chen Gang,” said Thomas of the Asia Society, referring to his rapid rise.
According to analysts, the length of Chen’s absence is highly unusual and suggests serious problems either with his health or his political status. The system is based on the idea that the party is always strong. When things don’t go well, they don’t know what to do, said Alex Payette, CEO of Cercius Group, a consulting firm that specializes in elite Chinese politics.
Chen graduated from Beijing University of International Relations, where intelligence officers and diplomats are trained. The school falls under the Ministry of State Security, China’s powerful spy agency, according to several Chinese officials and foreign diplomats.
Prior to his postings abroad, which included nearly a decade in London, he worked as a news assistant for the US news agency United Press International, according to reporters who knew him. As with most news assistants at the time, he was given the job by the Home Service Bureau, which took directions from MSS. Chen attended weekly meetings where news assistants shared intelligence on their media employers and received instructions about influencing their work.
With Chen’s fate unknown, the information blackout fueled Beijing’s wild rumor mill, which ran the gamut of possibilities from chronic illness and marital affairs to official investigations. Details of his whereabouts may emerge at an emergency meeting of leaders of the National People’s Congress, the country’s rubber-stamped legislature, on Tuesday night, reported NPC Observer, a website that monitors China’s parliament founded by Yale law school fellow Changhao Wei.
Even if Chen returned unharmed, the handling of his absence raised questions about transparency at a crucial moment for the government.
With China struggling to recover from the pandemic and harsh lockdowns, “Beijing is trying to convince the world that the economy is the focus right now,” Thomas said. “But this episode just goes to show that politics still reigns supreme.”
Additional reporting by James King and Eleanor Olcott in London
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