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China replaces foreign minister after weeks of concern regarding his whereabouts

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

Seven months - that is how long China's foreign minister lasted in his job, and his fall was as meteoric as his rise. NPR China correspondent John Ruwitch has been following this saga. He's here now. Hey, John.

JOHN RUWITCH, BYLINE: Good afternoon.

KELLY: Good afternoon. All right. What can you tell us about Qin Gang? Do we know what happened?

RUWITCH: Well, we do not know what happened. He dropped out of the public eye exactly a month ago. There has been no definitive explanation since. Today the government announced simply that he's out as foreign minister, and he's been replaced. The Foreign Ministry website has been expunging content related to him. When I searched for his name a little while ago in Chinese, I got an error message.

KELLY: Wow.

RUWITCH: But intriguingly, he hasn't been kicked out of the Communist Party. He still has his role as a state councillor, which is a senior government job, which - you know, if he was under investigation, you would expect those kinds of things to happen. So we really don't know what happened to him. You know, the Foreign Ministry - early on, a Foreign Ministry spokesman said that he had health issues. Many suspect it's possibly political or legal problems. The party is keeping very quiet about it. And it's all the more intriguing because this guy was a rising star. You know, he was close to Xi Jinping. He rose through the ranks, quickly becoming ambassador to the U.S. for about a year. And then he was one of China's youngest foreign ministers ever, leapfrogging other, more senior diplomats to get there. Now he's gone.

KELLY: Now he's gone. Yeah. I had the chance to meet in question him last year when he was here as ambassador in D.C. It's really extraordinary to have someone of his stature just vanish with no explanation. What are the political implications?

RUWITCH: Well, China's foreign minister is typically not the top foreign policy official in the country, so he's not exactly equal to, say, the secretary of state. It's an outward-facing, policy-implementing role. It's also important to remember that, you know, we're in this era of strongman rule, frankly, when it comes to China. Xi Jinping has consolidated and centralized power. What he says and wants is what matters most when it comes to policy, really, foreign and domestic. Changing the foreign minister probably doesn't matter a ton in that regard. And also, this kind of thing is a feature of China's Leninist system, right? The Communist Party has a long history of officials being disappeared for periods, in purges or for disciplinary issues. But Jude Blanchette with the Center for Strategic and International Studies says this is Kafkaesque, but it's still matters.

JUDE BLANCHETTE: This is yet another reminder of how difficult it can be to forge a predictable long-term relationship with China because relationships are based on people. And you can see that within the blink of an eye, someone who should be, basically, the public face of China suddenly disappears down a black hole.

KELLY: Meanwhile, John, China now has a new foreign minister who is also the old foreign minister. What's old is new again. What should Washington expect from Wang Yi?

RUWITCH: Well, in a word, continuity. Wang was the foreign minister before. As you said, he served in that role for about a decade, up until a few months ago. He's experienced. He's a known quantity around the world. The leadership clearly feels that he was best qualified to fill this void. What we don't know is how long he'll be in the job. You know, the Communist Party's top foreign policy official, which is Wang Yi's job right now, his main job, typically outranks the foreign minister. They're separate jobs. So it's somewhat uncharted territory. You know, this may be a new norm. You know, Xi Jinping's broken a lot of norms during his time in power. Or it may turn out to be the case that Wang Yi is filling in temporarily until Xi and the other leaders figure out who else they want in the job.

KELLY: NPR China correspondent John Ruwitch. Thanks, John.

RUWITCH: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

John Ruwitch is a correspondent with NPR's international desk. He covers Chinese affairs.