Henry Kissinger, John Kerry, Janet Yellen. Not least (former) American dignitaries have visited China in recent weeks. And they had one thing in common: none of them had met China’s foreign minister and former ambassador to the United States, Chen Gang. He has been under the radar for almost a month now.
And this did not go unnoticed. Especially after a visit by the European Union’s foreign affairs coordinator Josep Borrell to Beijing, which was abruptly canceled at the beginning of July. He was supposed to meet Chen there. Last week, he was also absent from the summit meeting of foreign ministers of ASEAN, an association of Southeast Asian nations. He was replaced by the chief Chinese diplomat Wang Yi, who was above Chen in the hierarchy.
When reporters asked why Chen was not there, a spokesperson for his ministry cited “health problems” as the reason. Last Monday – during Kerry’s visit to Beijing – the question was raised again. Suddenly, the spokeswoman said that she had “no information” on this matter. Also remarkable: Chinese social media posts about Chen were recently banned.
Chen was last seen in public on June 25. Then he met his Russian counterpart Andrei Rudenko. This was several days after the Wagner Rebellion in Russia. The photos show Chen smiling. After that he had meetings with colleagues from Sri Lanka and Vietnam.
But since that day, there has been no trace of President Xi Jinping’s friend. This is amazing for the 57-year-old diplomat, who never misses an opportunity to get to know himself. Since he started working for the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs in 1992, he has quickly worked his way up. Less than three years later, he was already sent to the UK (until 1999). A place he would go to twice in the following years: from 2002 to 2005 and from 2010 to 2011.
When he became a spokesperson for the second time, he really started to stand out in front of the general public. It was one of his most famous remarks in 2014. US President Barack Obama said at the time that America would remain a world leader for the next century. Chen then pointed to the octopus Paul, who correctly predicted all the results of Germany and the final between Spain and the Netherlands during the 2010 FIFA World Cup. “It must be great to be the president of this world. I don’t know if there is an octopus Paul who can predict the future of international affairs. But China has been the biggest boss for more than a century in the past. The comment went viral in China.
It was during the period when China gnawed at itself anyway. The Chinese economy slowed down somewhat due to the economic crisis of 2008, but quickly picked up again. This while mounting consequences for the economies of Europe and America for a long time. This rapid economic recovery created a new kind of consciousness in China. A consciousness in which nationalism is becoming increasingly important.
close to Shi
Chen’s guidance was thus well received by Xi Jinping and his comrades. He was promoted to ‘chief of protocol’ and was thus responsible for organizing Xi’s foreign travels. This also allowed him to spend a lot of time with the Chinese president. This may explain why Chen was suddenly appointed China’s ambassador to America in 2021. An important post, as rising tensions between the two world powers were evident. Less than a year later he became foreign minister.
In this capacity, he met with Wopke Hoekstra to talk about Ukraine and ASML, as well as Anthony Blinken, for example. That meeting was not expected in advance, but it nonetheless brought some relief after months of icy understandings. The reason is the alleged Chinese spy balloon that floated over the American airspace in February.
After that meeting between Blinken on the one hand and Qin and Xi on the other, the mood became somewhat more friendly. Xi wrote that “both sides have made progress” and that the world needs a “stable relationship” between the two countries. However, not all was peace and quiet. During the meeting, Chen reiterated that as a matter of urgency, America should “stop interfering in China’s internal affairs,” such as the Taiwan issue.
A week later, Chen met Rudenko, and thus there was no trace of Tin from that meeting. As is often the case in China, there are a lot of rumors but little clarity. For example, there are rumors that he was sidelined because of an extramarital affair. Or will he lose his favor with Shi for some unknown reason.
In this case, a similar fate to Meng Hongwei might await him. The former INTERPOL chief disappeared under mysterious circumstances in September 2018 while visiting China. Prior to this position he was for many years a leader within the Communist Party. A week after his disappearance, Meng was arrested by the Chinese authorities and charged with corruption. He ended up getting 13.5 years old.
It can also end differently. For example, Xi Jinping himself disappeared for two weeks, before he was elected party leader in 2012. This disappearance has many similarities to Chen’s. Likewise, “health problems” were given as the reason for Shi’s absence. Xi’s name has been blocked on the Chinese internet to contain the rumours. And as now, appointments with foreign dignitaries were suddenly cancelled.
Two weeks later, Shi’s name suddenly appeared. A political commentator then declared on behalf of his family that Xi was recovering well from his “health problems”. It was never clear what exactly was going on.
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