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China’s ex-foreign minister is gone but wait for explanation goes on: ‘Not found’

Hours after China’s top legislature convened a special meeting last week to remove foreign minister Qin Gang, photos and mentions of the 57-year-old started disappearing from his former ministry’s website.

While some of this information reappeared days later, Qin does not feature on the website’s list of “former ministers”, and for several more days a search for his name had been turning up: “Sorry, Qin Gang is not found”.

In fact, he has not been seen in public for more than a month.

The foreign ministry’s brief explanation weeks ago that this was due to health reasons, a remark later excised from official transcripts, has failed to stem a swirl of speculation not just about his fate but on how the whole saga reflects on the man that supported his meteoric rise, President Xi Jinping.

China named veteran diplomat Wang Yi to replace Qin, but gave few further clues on the reason for the change.

Foreign ministry spokeswoman Mao Ning on Thursday said Beijing will release information in a timely matter regarding Qin and opposes “malicious hype”.

She was responding to a reporter who asked about transparency around Qin’s removal, one of more than 25 questions mentioning Qin at press briefings in recent days that the ministry has ducked.

China’s Foreign Ministry and the State Council Information Office, which handles media queries on behalf of the party and government, did not immediately respond to requests for comment on this story.

Qin’s unusually long and unexplained absence, his abruptly cut-short tenure, as well as other strange happenings like the ministry’s website, mean speculation will continue to swirl.

“The truth will eventually come out – it usually does in China, although it sometimes takes months or years – but the way he was dismissed makes it unlikely that it was for health reasons,” said Ian Johnson, senior fellow for China studies at the Council on Foreign Relations.

Beijing-based political analyst Wu Qiang said he could “almost certainly rule out health as the real reason”. If that was the case, the state could have assigned a deputy to fill in for him rather than officially removing him, Wu said.

Qin lasted barely half a year in the role after becoming one of the country’s youngest foreign ministers in December 2022, a position with a five-year tenure.

There are precedents for officials disappearing and being scrubbed from the collective memory in China.

Qin lasted barely half a year in the role after becoming one of the country’s youngest foreign ministers in December 2022, a position with a five-year tenure.

Industry minister Xiao Yaqing vanished for nearly a month last year before it was revealed he was being investigated for corruption.

The foreign ministry removed all online traces to its former chief protocol officer Zhang Kunsheng who was found guilty of corruption and using his position of power to obtain sex in 2016.

Such erasures go back decades in China.

A state-commissioned painting depicting the historic moment when Mao Zedong stood on top of Tiananmen Gate to announce the founding of the people’s republic was altered three times between 1955 and 1972 to erase officials that subsequently fell foul of Mao.

But other observers say, in Qin’s case, it is far from clear cut.

The National People’s Congress Standing Committee that convened on Tuesday did not remove Qin’s other title of State Councillor, a cabinet member who ranks higher than a minister, despite having the power to do so, experts say.

And despite the omissions from the foreign ministry’s website, a portrait of the former U.S. envoy remained hanging prominently on the wall of the Chinese embassy in Washington on Thursday, according to a Reuters witness.

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