Sep 20, 2023 - World

Xi protégés fall as Beijing focuses on security risks

Photo illustration of Xi Jinping, Qin Gang and Li Shangfu.

Photo illustration: Shoshana Gordon/Axios. Photos: Noel Celis/AFP, Gianluigi Guercia/AFP via Getty Images

The ousting of two top Chinese government officials in under two months is the latest indication that the leadership in Beijing is increasingly fixated on eliminating security risks.

Why it matters: The Chinese Communist Party's growing preoccupation with stamping out perceived national security threats at home could undermine China's reputation abroad for stable leadership.

  • The turbulence in China's top ranks damages the aura of stability that the Chinese government has cultivated in comparison to the frequent elections and leadership transitions in democracies, Jacob Stokes, a senior fellow at the Indo-Pacific Security Program at the Center for a New American Security, told Axios.
  • But authoritarian systems "lack a set of rules around how transition happens related to individual people in the system," bringing its own form of unpredictability, Stokes said.

Driving the news: The Chinese Communist Party is reportedly investigating former Foreign Minister Qin Gang for an affair he had while serving as ambassador to the U.S., the Wall Street Journal reported yesterday. The affair reportedly led to the birth of a child in the U.S.

  • Rumors began swirling about Qin and his possible affair earlier this summer. In July, after Qin hadn't been seen in public for over a month, the Chinese government announced without explanation that he had been removed from his post.
  • Party leaders reportedly view the alleged affair and U.S.-born child as security risks that might affect Qin's loyalties and ability to carry out his duties on behalf of Beijing.
  • China's defense minister, Li Shangfu, was also reportedly detained last week. Both Qin and Li were selected by Chinese president Xi Jinping as part of a slate of loyalists he installed within China's leadership over the past year.

What's happening: The reported investigations of top former ministers come amid a major government push against foreign espionage.

  • In August, China's intelligence agency called on all citizens to report suspicious activity.
  • Cash rewards are being offered for information leading to the arrest of spies, and posters have appeared on the campuses of Chinese universities urging students to be vigilant, Bloomberg reports.
  • The Chinese Embassy in Washington did not respond to a request for comment.

Between the lines: China's diplomats have long faced suspicion back home due to their close contact with foreign governments and societies — but scrutiny seems to have intensified under Xi.

  • "Qin's abrupt removal reflects Beijing's heightened sensitivity to potential risks, real or imagined," Craig Singleton, senior China fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies in Washington, told Axios.
  • "If a U.S. diplomat in China were to mirror Qin's alleged indiscretions, Chinese security services would almost certainly seize the opportunity for strategic gain," said Singleton, who added that Xi likely believes the U.S. could seek to exploit Qin's private life.

The big picture: In recent months, Xi has made a big push to promote China as the center of an emerging global governance intended to rival that of the West — an effort that could be undermined if Beijing isn't seen as reliable or steady.

  • In August, the group of emerging economies known as BRICS agreed to invite six more nations to join, including Iran and Saudi Arabia, in what was seen as an expansion of China's political influence.
  • Xi has also skipped West-dominated summits over the past month, including the G20 leaders summit in New Delhi and this week's United Nations General Assembly.
  • Some analysts believe this is a sign Xi is trying to reduce the influence of West-dominated multilateral organizations in favor of China-centric ones, though others suggest it may be that Xi is focusing on problems at home, including a flagging economy.

What to watch: The U.S.-China diplomatic relationship so far doesn't seem affected by China's domestic turmoil. Washington and Beijing have maintained a schedule of high-level meetings in recent days despite the leadership shake-up.

  • In Malta over the weekend, U.S. national security adviser Jake Sullivan held two days of meetings with China's new foreign minister, Wang Yi, a seasoned diplomat .
  • Secretary of State Antony Blinken met Chinese Vice President Han Zheng on the sidelines of the United Nations General Assembly this week.
  • These meetings suggest the pieces could still be in place for a possible Biden-Xi meeting at APEC in San Francisco later this year, Stokes said, though Xi has not yet confirmed his attendance.
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