New Delhi: Qin Gang, 55, a former Chinese vice-minister for foreign affairs who also has a career in journalism under his belt, arrived in the US last week to take charge as Beijing’s new ambassador to Washington.
Qin, who is currently serving a 14-day quarantine period, has been appointed envoy at a time of deep tensions between the US and China over several issues, including trade, technology, human rights and Beijing’s aggression in the Indo-Pacific.
As ambassador, he will play a key role as a liaison for the two countries.
Many media reports noted a “conciliatory tone” as Qin made his first official remarks as US ambassador, with some contrasting it with the “wolf warrior” rhetoric he was known to adopt during his tenure as foreign ministry spokesperson (in 2005-2010 and again in 2011-2014).
“I firmly believe the door of US-China relations, which is already open, cannot and should not be closed,” Qin told reporters upon his arrival in the US last Thursday. In a message on the Chinese embassy’s website, he added that at this “new historical juncture” of China-US relations, both countries need to cooperate, treat each other with respect and equality and pursue peaceful coexistence.
Qin replaces Cui Tiankai, 68, who departed from the US in June after eight years in Washington.
Qin’s closeness with Chinese President Xi Jinping, said to have evolved during his stint as director-general of the foreign ministry protocol department (responsible for “state protocol matters and ceremonial events”) between 2014 and 2018, is believed to be a major factor behind his appointment.
Unlike nearly all Chinese ambassadors to the US since the 1980s, Qin “has never specialised in dealing” with Washington, The New York Times noted in a profile last week. His diplomacy repertoire includes three separate stints in the UK.
It was reportedly expected that diplomat Zheng Zeguang, who has earlier served two stints in the US twice, including from 2005-2008, would bag the US ambassador’s post while Qin would return to the UK. However, Zheng arrived in Britain as China’s top envoy in June.
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Journalism to diplomacy
Born in Tianjin in March 1966, Qin is a graduate of the Beijing-based University of International Relations. He is married with one son.
He started his professional life as a journalist, working as a news assistant at the Beijing bureau of the US-based news agency United Press International. In 1992, he joined the foreign ministry’s diplomatic corps, and served in various attaché and senior foreign ministry positions in the UK and western Europe until 2005.
But it was his subsequent role as foreign ministry spokesperson and deputy director-general of the information department in Beijing — which he took up in 2005 — that gave him prominence.
In 2009, he famously chided a BBC journalist when speaking about China’s ‘Green Dam’ internet filtering system. “Do you know what this software is about?” he asked a reporter. “Do you have kids?”
A Diplomat report quoted an unnamed former journalist who attended Qin’s press conferences describing him as someone who is “contemptuous”, “charismatic” and “talks with theatrical flair”.
He was known to make barbed comments. On one occasion, he compared China’s takeover of Tibet to former US president Abraham Lincoln’s emancipation of enslaved Black people. This was 2009, when Barack Obama was US president, and Qin was referring to reports of a proposed meeting between him and the Dalai Lama.
In 2014, a few days after Obama gave a speech saying the US would remain a world leader for the next century, Qin delivered a one-liner to foreign journalists that went viral in China. “I don’t know if there is a Paul the Octopus to predict the future in international affairs. But I can tell you China was once big boss for more than a century,” he said, referring to the famed Paul the Octopus’ predictive abilities during the 2010 football World Cup.
Another profile describes Qin as “one of the backbone members” of China’s “wolf warrior” style of diplomacy, according to Beijing-based independent analyst Hua Po. In February this year, Qin reportedly defended this style of diplomacy as a necessary response to “groundless slander” and “crazy attacks against China”.
This, The New York Times noted, was unlike his predecessor Cui, who distanced himself from the rhetoric and Covid conspiracy theories of some rising Chinese diplomats.
Closeness with Xi Jinping
Qin is believed to have developed a close relationship with Chinese President Xi Jinping while serving as director-general of the foreign ministry protocol department from 2014-2018. He accompanied Xi on many overseas trips, including to the US in 2015, and meetings with foreign leaders.
The NYT quoted Ryan Hass, former China director at the US national security council under Obama, describing Qin as someone who was “willing to ruffle feathers without hesitation when he felt it was necessary”.
(Edited by Sunanda Ranjan)
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