When Qin Gang arrived in Washington on Wednesday, China’s ambassador to the US appears conciliatory and willing to compromise. Dressed in a tailored black suit and red tie, the 55-year-old proclaims, “China-U.S. relations have once again reached a critical juncture, with not only many difficulties and challenges, but also great opportunities and potential.” The relationship is important, not only for Chinese and US societies, but for the future of the entire world, Gang said. In any case, he would strive to put US-China relations “back on track.”
These are words one might expect from a high-ranking diplomat – especially in what is by far the most important foreign position Beijing has to award. But Qin’s restraint on Wednesday doesn’t fit in at all with his previous behavior.
A wolf warrior in sheep’s clothing?
Rather, in his two terms as spokesman for the Chinese Foreign Ministry in Beijing, Qin earned the reputation of a “wolf warrior” – a member of a generation of Chinese diplomats who seek to defend the People’s Republic in the press and on online networks with their rough and sometimes even aggressive style. Qin himself justified such demeanor as a necessary response to baseless slander and crazed attacks against China. “It is impertinent to insult China while trying to prevent it from fighting back,” Qin said last February. Rather, he said, it is the duty of Chinese diplomats to stand up in the face of such indefensible slander.
Qin gave one of the most famous samples of his repartee in 2014, just days after then-U.S. President Barack Obama announced the US would remain the world’s leading power in the next century. At the time, Qin countered at a press conference in Beijing, “It must be nice to be the big boss in the world.” Only to add: “I don’t know if there is a Paul the Octopus who can predict the future of international relations. But I can assure them, China has been the big boss before, and for much longer than just a century.”
Close ties with President Xi
Born in Tianjin in 1966, Qin is a career diplomat. After studying international relations, he entered directly into the service of China’s Foreign Ministry in 1988. At headquarters, he was mainly responsible for Western Europe, and during this period he was sent to the Chinese Embassy in London three times in subordinate positions, while back home he rose steadily to the position of ministry spokesman. In 2014, Qin was then appointed chief of protocol and from this point on accompanied President Xi Jinping on many of his trips abroad, before finally being appointed vice foreign minister in 2018. In particular, the years from 2014 to 2017, when he was chief of protocol, were crucial to Qin’s appointment as ambassador to the United States. Few staff members have come into contact with President Xi for so long and so closely. During this time, he managed to earn the trust of the most important man in China.
Now he is taking up his first post as ambassador in Washington. He succeeds Cui Tiankai, who previously acted as China’s top representative in the US capital for eight years. Qin speaks fluent English, is married and has a son.
Back home, he is receiving praise in advance. “Qin Gang is the right person to handle the world’s most complicated and at the same time most important relations,” Liu Xiang of the Chinese Academy of Social Science told the state-run newspaper Global Times. At 55, he is much younger than his 69-year-old predecessor Cui, but has enough to defend Chinese interests even under great pressure. Liu confirms the Global Times that Qin’s position in the Chinese state apparatus is well established and adds: “he is close to the decision-making level and can see China-US relations and China’s foreign affairs from a higher and broader perspective,”
The Challenge from the USA
Qin will need a keen eye and above all a measure of diplomatic skill in his new position because he is going to face an increasingly negative US press and government. Like his predecessor Donald Trump, US President Joe Biden is taking a hard line on China. He sees China as a threat to the international order and since his inauguration has been doing everything he can to reactivate US alliances to build a broad community against China. This week, Biden even mentioned the risk of a real war with China that could result from Chinese cyberattacks.
Qin’s appointment as ambassador to Washington comes just days after US Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman met with China’s Foreign Minister Wang Yi in Tianjin. Originally planned to prevent misunderstandings, the meeting ended in a harsh verbal exchange between the two countries’ diplomatic emissaries (as reported by China.Table). Relations between Beijing and Washington are currently extremely tense. There are plenty of issues of dispute, ranging from China’s actions in the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region, its treatment of the Uyghur Muslim minority in the province of Xinjiang to the mutual sanctions and punitive tariffs between the two great powers.
While US President Joe Biden has yet to install a new ambassador in Beijing, China has set the tone in Washington with Qin Gang as its top representative. It may be his first post as ambassador, but Washington should not be fooled by his conciliatory remarks upon his arrival. Qin is by no means a diplomatic novice, and the manners he displayed on Wednesday made him seem like a wolf in sheep’s clothing. His close ties to President Xi Jinping, and especially his notorious gruff manner, show that China is bracing for more tensions with the United States. Michael Radunski