#25 - China's Face-Change Diplomacy
变脸 - bian4lian3 - Face Change
After China’s 20th Communist Party Congress concluded in mid-October 2022, many analysts were left scratching their heads regarding the significance behind new political appointments and promotions. A key promotion was that of PRC Ambassador to the US Qin Gang (秦刚) to the post of Minister of Foreign Affairs (MoFA). Many believe that Qin will use his position as the new head of China’s diplomatic corps to moderate the tone of Beijing’s diplomacy and be a “better messenger” for China. Vermilion assesses that Qin Gang is more of the same and his promotion is just another in a long line of “face changes” in an attempt to convince other countries that China will have a future conciliatory change of heart in crafting foreign policy.
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Who is Qin Gang?
Without digging too deeply down the wrong hole, there is a remote but believable chance that Qin did not start off as a diplomat, but rather an intelligence officer. He graduated from the University of International Relations (UIR / 国关) in 1988, less than a year before the 1989 Tiananmen Protests would break out in Beijing. UIR has a known relationship with the Ministry of State Security (MSS), China’s civilian intelligence agency. As David Shambaugh (Director of the China Policy Program at GW’s Elliott School) pointed out, UIR was established in 1964 to "train intelligence personnel for the [MSS] and [undercover positions] at Xinhua News Agency.” This mission continues through to the present day. Many graduates of UIR go on to become unacknowledged MSS intelligence officers.
Once Qin graduates and Tiananmen breaks, he spends his early career in Beijing. There is some confusion about Qin’s first job. Baidu (CN) (China’s nationally protected version of Google) claims that he began working for MoFA in 1988. Other Western sources claim that Qin began his career as a news assistant at United Press International’s (UPI) Beijing Bureau. UPI is/was an American news service similar to Associated Press or Reuters. Yet other Western sources claim that Qin was already a diplomat in 1988 and assigned to work at UPI by MoFA. In any event, the story is unclear.
The MSS would certainly have required the help of all hands on deck during the Tiananmen crisis, in particular by controlling the information leaving China about the protests, which UPI was certainly responsible for. By 1995, Qin was assigned to the United Kingdom, almost certainly a top Chinese intelligence target. In 2010, Qin returned to the UK in a more senior role as Envoy of the PRC to the UK.
The last nugget of data to support this assertion is that Qin was twice assigned to the Information Department (新闻司) of MoFA, first as the Deputy Director-General, then as the Director-General. The euphemistically named “Information Department'' is almost certainly MoFA’s organic intelligence arm, analogous to the US State Department’s Bureau of Intelligence and Research, a full member of the US intelligence community. Alternatively, Qin may have been assigned to the Information Department twice simply to carry out responsibilities as a MoFA spokesman.
While readers should know this background, it must be stressed that Qin is still most likely a career diplomat. During his two stints at the Information Department, Qin served in MoFA spokesman roles where his pointed dialogue with reporters earned him the Wolf Warrior mantle, a term for an aggressive style of Chinese diplomacy that employs inflammatory rhetoric to defend Beijing’s positions on international issues. In 2014, when questioned about China’s growing military power, Qin responded:
“I want to reiterate that the Chinese People's Liberation Army is not a children's corps equipped with red-tasseled spears. Some outside China hope to see China stay as a boy scout and never grow up. Even if China were a boy scout, he will grow taller and his feet will grow larger year by year. You cannot simply have him wearing the same small clothes and shoes, can you?”
In response to questions about Wolf Warrior diplomacy (CN) in Feb 2021, Qin said:
“Certain countries and individuals that smear China unscrupulously without any evidence are nothing less than evil wolves.”
After leaving his second posting as spokesman, Qin’s key diplomatic assignments include being the head of MoFA’s Protocol Department (礼宾司) from 2014 to 2017, the Vice Minister of Foreign Affairs from 2018 to 2021, and China’s ambassador to the US from 2021 to Jan 2023.
In his Protocol Department role, Qin arranged and attended Xi Jinping’s meetings with foreign leaders both at home and abroad, giving Qin vital face time with Xi and the ability to network extensively in Beijing.
The appointment as Vice Minister of Foreign Affairs (MoFA’s #2 civil service leader) gave Qin vital experience as a government executive before his assignment as China’s ambassador to the US in 2021. At the time, Qin surprised many China experts by promoting US-China business and trade relations without much aggressive Wolf Warrior language. In contrast, peers like Zhao Lijian (赵立坚) have continued their strident tone, something we will return to later.
At least since Qin’s Protocol Department assignment, he has been regarded as a trusted assistant of Xi Jinping by Western observers and has accompanied Xi Jinping on many foreign visits until recently, possibly because of the importance of maintaining a presence in Washington, DC. Following the UK and US assignments, Qin is familiar dealing with China’s main adversaries. Qin’s personal relationship with Xi and his experience gained through these assignments led directly to his appointment as Minister of Foreign Affairs.
How Did Qin’s Promotion Process Work?
To be head of MoFA, Qin was formally appointed by China’s Premier, Li Keqiang. Premier Li is the senior government civil servant in China; the executive bureaucrat. Some countries call this position prime minister. Keep in mind that China is a one party communist state, with the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) holding all ultimate power. This is why Premier Li is not ultimately in charge. That would be Xi Jinping, General Secretary of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of China.
For China experts, this is a distinction to keep in mind. Qin Gang is primarily a government civil servant of China. Of course, Qin is a member of the CCP, as all high ranking officials are required to be. However, Qin’s background is in government positions, not party positions. This means (in general) that he is more of a technical expert/implementer than a political leader. In the CCP, technical experts are usually more in charge of execution, while political experts are in charge of strategy (choosing goals and matching them with resources) and decision-making (choosing one course of action/operation over others).
Other assessments corroborate this position, including that of Bonnie Glaser, Director of the Asia Program at the German Marshall Fund. "In terms of China's foreign policy, he will be an implementer, not a formulator," she told Reuters.
As previously posted, Chinese diplomats very much match the technical expert stereotype. They are trained to execute the CCP’s directives without question and without seeking further direction. Chinese diplomats are still taught Zhou Enlai’s (the first head of MoFA) maxim that “diplomatic authority is limited” (外交工作授权有限). In function, PRC diplomats bear little resemblance to their American counterparts who see themselves as both stewards and stakeholders in the formulation of US foreign policy.
Consequences for Strategic Competition:
While many Western observers lean into the analysis that Qin Gang represents a softer approach on Xi’s part because of international diplomatic blowback, Vermilion does not entirely agree. This shift is simply a “face change”. Make no mistake, Qin Gang is a Wolf Warrior, even if not as hostile as other officials. Beijing likely saw the Wolf Warrior strategy as successful throughout 2022. Through the pandemic era, few countries diplomatically or in the press pushed back hard on China’s human rights record or exaggerated territorial claims. Qin Gang worked to achieve this goal. Vermilion assesses that Xi Jinping desires to create a perception that China’s rise is inevitable, and that nations which help it rise will be rewarded while nations that work crosswise will be punished once China is strong. Wolf Warrior diplomacy allows Xi to signal this perception and inflict pain on countries in the latter category.
A potential turning point for these trends is possible at the beginning of this year (2023). With Japan’s announcement of an explicitly anti-PRC military strategy and Beijing’s rapid opening up post-COVID (highly likely due to economic reasons), the CCP may pause aggressive externally focused initiatives until it perceives that it has gotten its own economic house in stable order. Vermilion assesses that if this pause happens, it is not a sea change in Chinese diplomacy, merely a temporary face change.
Beijing’s responses to actions it sees as provocative will be instructive. In particular, the Chinese response to a potential visit to Taiwan by US Speaker of the House, Kevin McCarthy will shed some light. It is possible that Xi moved Zhao Lijian (the above-mentioned fiery Wolf Warrior diplomat) to the MoFA Boundary and Ocean Affairs Department just for this eventuality. If the Speaker visits Taiwan, Zhao could possibly be Beijing’s point man in creating and submitting to the United Nations a new Beijing-created map of Taiwan’s baselines for calculating territorial seas. This new map may exclude numerous Taiwan outlying islands (such as Kinmen, Wuqiu, Matsu, Green Island, Orchid Island, and the Penghu Islands), sending the signal that Beijing sees these Taiwan territories as not part of Taiwan and therefore subject to near-term PRC invasion.
In this instance, Xi would certainly rely on Zhao’s sword-fighting approach to parry international attacks against Beijing’s position. Qin would also likely have to change to a more combative tone if Xi were to adopt such a measure, leading to a re-emergence of the Wolf Warrior style.
Another crucial test will be how MoFA responds to Japan’s rearmament strategy. In the wake of executive meetings between Japan’s Prime Minister Kishida and President Biden discussing the strengthening of the Tokyo-Washington alliance, it will be interesting to see if MoFA’s approach to the strengthening alliance of its two main adversaries in 2023 is muted or sharply critical.
There will also be two more opportunities to check the temperature at MoFA in the near term. Qin was recently authorized to give more public structure to the growing bilateral relationship between China and Russia. In a call with his opposite number in Russia, Sergei Lavrov, Qin asserted that Sino-Russian relations are based on non-alignment, non-confrontation, and non-targeting of third parties. It remains to be seen what these principles mean, especially non-alignment. It is hard to interpret if this non-alignment (不结盟) means that Moscow and Beijing are not aligned, or that both nations oppose the creation of alliances. The Russian version of the readout certainly highlights the latter definition. Regardless, the Ukraine War is likely to drag on, which will increase criticism aimed at Beijing over China’s tacit support of Russia. It will be Qin’s responsibility to execute the response.
The second opportunity is US Secretary of State Antony Blinken’s planned China visit in February, which will set the tone of the US-PRC relationship for at least the next few months, if not the year. Blinken’s interactions with Qin and other MoFA officials will display the attitudes Xi wants his loyal diplomats to exude, giving China watchers more clues about Beijing’s intent.
US policy makers and diplomats should focus on strategic messaging that highlights the duplicitous nature of Chinese Face Change Diplomacy while underlining the predictability and stability of the American approach. The Select Committee on Strategic Competition Between the United States and the Chinese Communist Party must address this issue and work with the US State Department in 2023.
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