Fate of Top Chinese Official Remains Unknown
Love child with TV star may have derailed rise of foreign minister Qin Gang
He’s back—in digital form, anyway. Only a few days after official Beijing erased almost all traces of the erstwhile up-and-coming foreign minister Qin Gang, his photo, along with accounts of his diplomatic forays last month, have suddenly reappeared.
Why? “Maybe full erasure of a foreign minister was a bad look externally and domestically?” China expert Bill Bishop speculated on Twitter.
But Beijing did not fully refresh Qin’s profile, much less his career. Today he’s listed only as a state councillor, a position technically above that of a government minister and below the level of a vice premier. His retention in this senior position on the State Council, even as he was officially removed as Foreign Minister on July 25, is a curious contradiction in Qin Gang’s downfall from his high perch as the fast-tracked protégé of President Xi Jinping.
All this may indicate that Xi Jinping has not quite decided what to do with Qin.
Qin’s current whereabouts and official status, meanwhile, remain a mystery. He has not carried out any official functions since June 25, when he canceled a number of events, including a scheduled meeting with the European Union’s foreign policy chief. He’s not been seen in public since then, raising fears that he’s in custody—never a good situation in China’s opaque justice system.
Qin’s replacement for now as foreign minister is Wang Yi, his predecessor and China’s top diplomat as head of the Chinese Communist Party’s Foreign Affairs Commission.
In the void, rumors about the reasons behind Qin’s downfall—salacious and otherwise—have gained traction.
Let’s take a closer look.
1. Qin Gang had an extramarital affair and a love child with Phoenix Television’s star Fu Xiaotian:
Prior to her departure via private jet from L.A. for Beijing on April 10, the glamorous TV personality wrote three posts on her Instagram account, including one with pictures of her baby during a visit by what seemed to be Fu’s parents. The only man pictured in the posts, besides the child’s (apparent) grandfather, was Qin Gang, attending an event with Fu.
In her Instagram narrative accompanying that photo, Fu marked the important day: “As per 2/22/2022. A historical day for us.” Responses from her Instagram followers congratulated, and mocked, Fu for being together with Qin, a married man.
On March 4, 2023, Fu wrote on Instagram that it was the baby's 100th day-old celebration (百日宴), the observance of which is a widespread Chinese tradition. (A child’s age in Chinese tradition starts from conception, so that the 100th day after birth becomes the child’s first birthday.) Later, she wrote that she wished the baby’s unnamed father a happy birthday. Qin’s birthdate is listed officially as “March 1966.”
Some of Fu’s Instagram followers expressed congratulations (perhaps mischievously)—“He looks like Qin Gang!” one said—or shock. Others openly mocked Fu for allegedly having a baby with Qin Gang out of wedlock.
And she was not denying it. Party officials may have decided that something had to be done.
2. Fu as an MSS Spy, Informant, or Patsy:
Another rumor, which we first addressed on July 20, was the possibility that Fu Xiaotian was working as an agent of the Ministry of State Security, China’s all-powerful civilian intelligence-gathering and domestic countersubversion organ.
It’s hardly likely, though, that a secret agent would advertise her titillating personal life so widely on social media, no matter that she’s a celebrity in China. On the other hand, Fu may have decided that laundering her dirty linen in public would give her a measure of protection, however risky.
There’s no proof of any of that, but the timing is worth reviewing: Qin Gang’s meteoric rise in 2021-2023 roughly coincides with her relationship with Fu, culminating in her very public departure from California on April 10. If their affair was not only real, but knowledge of it widespread—including by Qin’s wife—it could have led party officials to question the TV star about their relationship, followed by a disciplinary investigation that triggered his removal as foreign minister and disappearance. Fu’s last cryptic message on Twitter was that she was leaving the U.S. for Beijing and the "front line" (前方). She hasn’t been seen since.
Former CIA official Richard Lawless has advanced yet another twist to the tale: that Qin Gang’s wronged wife, Lin Yan (林彦) who is said to be close to Xi Jinping’s wife Peng Liyuan, asked Peng to urge her husband to discipline Qin. “Peng and Li are close friends and apparently share similar frustrations about the philandering of their respective spouses,” he wrote.
3. Qin’s Fate
Is he still alive? Chinese-language social media was rumbling in mid-July with a rumor that Qin “died in bed” at the Army’s Number 301 Hospital in Beijing, though at least one fact checking site on Taiwan rates it as unreliable.
“Rumors are getting wilder,” an intelligence analyst of CCP affairs based in Asia told SpyTalk on condition of anonymity. “The best we can expect is an eventual statement from the CCP’s Central Disciplinary Inspection Commission. I can’t see how Qin Gang can live through this fiasco.”
Nicholas Eftimiades, a former CIA and DIA analyst and the author of Chinese Espionage Operations and Tactics, echoed such fears about Qin’s fate.
“The longer someone in the leadership is out of sight, the more serious is their likely fate,” he told SpyTalk.
Imprisonment and executions have been all too common for senior officials who ran afoul of Mao Zedong, not to mention fellow communist dictator dictator Josef Stalin. Under Xi Jinping, Beijing’s jail for political prisoners has become famously overcrowded.
One thing is for certain: It may take years to find out what really happened. Bill Bishop, author of the authoritative Sinocism newsletter on Substack, rounded up commentary from mainstream media coverage of Qin’s plight that underscored the minimal insight we have into party machinations in Beijing.
“We have these occasional moments that remind us just how little we know about Chinese politics,” noted American University Assistant Professor Joseph Torigian, an expert on the behavior of authoritarian regimes. Torigian said he “didn’t see a single rumor that Wang Yi would take over.”
Even official word from Beijing on Qin Gang’s detention should be taken with a grain of salt until it’s accompanied by persuasive evidence, such as photos of him standing in the dock flanked by two policemen, à la Bo Xilai, a one time powerful provincial official who contested Xi for CCP leadership in 2012. He ended up convicted on bribery and embezzlement charges. His wife Gu Kailai was convicted of murdering the British businessman Neil Heywood. As far as we know, Bo and Gu are still alive.
It could be worse. Lin Biao, Mao Zedong’s designated successor through much of the 1960s, tried to flee China in 1971 after a long-simmering decline in his relationship with the party chairman, and died with his wife and son in a plane crash short of their destination in Russia. (Someone forgot to refuel the aircraft.)
The resulting political witch hunts, including one that subtly targeted Zhou Enlai, underlined to the populace the importance for their own health of hewing to the line that Mao was infallible and problems were the fault of traitors—by then a traditional CCP solution to such problems dating back to the defection of CCP Intelligence leader Gu Shunzhang in 1931. In the sunset years of his life, the standing of Chairman Mao, who died in 1976, did not appreciably suffer for the “mistake” of making Lin Biao his successor.
4. Xi’s Fate
Hu Ping, the retired, honorary editor-in-chief of the venerable U.S.-based dissident magazine Beijing Spring, wrote on July 17 that extramarital affairs, along with the resulting illegitimate children, have been common among party leaders. It’s when the rumors bubble uncomfortably to the surface that trouble erupts.
Commenting for the Radio Free Asia website, Hu cited the case of “Xi Jinping himself,” who was the subject of rumors a decade ago “that he had a mistress during his stay in Fujian,” where in 1985 he rose from deputy mayor of Xiamen to provincial party leader. Xi “obviously did not care for the circulation of such allegations,” Hu wrote. In late 2015 communist agents raided the independent Causeway Bay Bookstore in Hong Kong, which carried books on the private lives of senior Beijing officials, and five of its staffers went missing, only to turn up later in custody on mainland China.
“If there is a senior official whose improper sexual relationship is exposed in a way that is difficult to deny, spread in a way that is difficult to control, and it is difficult for the highest authority to forcibly ban it, then this official will be out of luck,” Hu wrote. “What's more troublesome [for Xi] is that Qin Gang was promoted three times in a row and became the Minister of Foreign Affairs in one fell swoop.” Qin’s messy affair, he predicted, will damage “Xi Jinping's personal authority.”
Some party bosses who—silently, of course—do not wish Xi Jinping well may be rooting for such a negative outcome. Ian Johnson, a fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, wrote that Xi’s time at the apex of China’s leadership “has run into serious difficulties.”
Meanwhile, back in China, those who wish to keep their heads by advancing Xi Jinping’s fortunes and “thought” may see the Qin Gang affair as their leader’s opportunity to show everyone who’s boss.
Xi is not quite Mao, of course. But while we wait for another shoe to drop in the saga of Qin Gang and Fu Xiaotian, one thing is certain: Xi Jinping will seek the best way to minimize the damage to himself and his image as the Great Leader who restored China’s to its appropriate, grand place in the world. Like Mao in the early 1970s, he may well decide to employ Qin Gang’s fall for additional ends.
Given the power that the “Chairman of everything” has accumulated, and the possibility that fear of his authority, not to mention fear of chaos, is growing among some sectors of the CCP, Xi may end up reaping more from this situation than is presently generally recognized.
SpyTalk Contributing Writer Matthew Brazil is co-author, with Peter Mattis, of the authoritative Chinese Communist Espionage: An Intelligence Primer.
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