When China was in the throes of the Cultural Revolution in the 1960s and 1970s, it was not uncommon for Mao Zedong’s rivals or others who had fallen out of political favor to simply vanish from the photographic record. Now, in an odd digital echo of the pre-reform era, articles about China’s foreign minister, Qin Gang (秦刚), who was formally removed from his post on Tuesday, have been expunged within the website of the foreign ministry.
Searches within the web address of China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA) for “Qin Gang” on Wednesday returned scores of headlines from January to June, topped by “Qin Gang Meets With Russian Deputy FM Rudenko,” and “Qin Gang Holds Talks with US Secretary of State Blinken.” However, all of these official MFA news releases are now removed from the site, yielding a message that reads: “The page you are visiting does not exist or has been deleted.”
Curiously, the same official releases remain available at other official media sites, including that of the CCP’s flagship People’s Daily, and commercial media websites such as that of China Business Network.
Based on our analysis, it seems that of the hundreds of posts to the MFA website during Qin Gang’s seven-month tenure in office, only reports prior to February 2 were available as of 3 AM Beijing time on Wednesday. But these were disabled soon after, and the website’s section on “Minister’s Events” showed only a message that read: “Information being updated . . . . “
It seemed that information related to Qin Gang was being actively removed from the MFA site early on Wednesday. Qin Gang’s bio was listed under “Minister’s Resume“ as late as 4 AM, but was also being “updated” 15 minutes later, along with sections such as “Minister’s Path.”
All reports on the MFA site visible through the Google in-site search linked to pages with page-not-found messages. For example, a report on Qin’s meeting on May 30 with Elon Musk, archived here, is no longer found.
The same is true of Qin’s meeting on May 8 with US Ambassador to China Nicholas Burns, which is archived here.
It is not clear what purpose the removal of all Qin-related content from the MFA website would serve, particularly as many (if not all) of these reports are available through other online channels. But it seems to be a further sign of turmoil within the ministry, which has spent several weeks offering no elaboration on the fate of its top leader.
State media finally reported on Tuesday that China’s top legislative body had removed Qin Gang from his post and that he had been replaced by his predecessor, Wang Yi (王毅), who since January has served as director of the Foreign Affairs Commission of the CCP Central Committee.
The reasons for Qin’s removal remain unclear, an unsettling reminder of the murky and unpredictable nature of China’s politics and political system. China had earlier said that Qin, who had been missing from public events for more than three weeks, was absent for “health reasons.” His continued absence, with no clarification forthcoming from the foreign ministry or state media, fueled speculation that the 57-year-old official — regarded as close to General Secretary Xi Jinping — is facing an official investigation or has fallen out of favor.
The MFA site deletions would seem to discount continued speculation among some experts on Tuesday that Qin Gang’s absence and now removal might still be due to serious health issues. Even if health issues had necessitated Qin’s removal as foreign minister, there is no reason this would lead to the deletion of the past record of his meetings within the MFA site.
When clarifications arrive in the coming weeks and months from state media, those headlines will likely encourage further speculation as to the full picture. And what is missing from the headlines — that may tell us something too.