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Foreign Policy

Scoring Diplomatic Points

Jan 19, 2023

Qin Gang just left his position as Beijing’s top envoy to the United States to become China’s Foreign Minister. He replaces Wang Yi who was promoted to the politburo in October and will retain considerable influence in foreign policy as Xi’s top foreign policy aide. 

Unlike the austere and aloof Wang Yi, Qin Gang is a gregarious diplomat. He, too, must follow a strictly codified party line and by the nature of his job, he too must hide his feelings at times, but when he’s not espousing policy, he comes off as affable, easy-going and relatively unguarded. 

Qin Gang gleefully engages in “man-of-the-people” photo ops that resonate well with ordinary Americans, but might seem beneath the dignity of his diplomatic colleagues. 

For example, Qin Gang made a show of riding a tractor and harvesting some corn during a visit to Missouri. This was no doubt amusing to local farmers, and cast him as someone with sensibilities that extended beyond the Beltway. He also threw out the first pitch in a St. Louis Cardinal’s baseball game and made a point of praising an odd mid-western delicacy best known to locals. The so-called “St. Paul” sandwich, said to have been invented by Steven Yuen at Park Chop Suey in St. Louis, is a white bread sandwich packed with an egg foo young patty, sliced pickles, white onion, mayonnaise, lettuce and tomatoes. 

How’s that for U.S.-China fusion cuisine? 

Qin Gang is good at citing Americana. He likes U.S. music and can reference Broadway shows. He not only celebrated an American sandwich unknown to most Americans, but has rolled up his sleeves to shoot baskets on the court with NBA players in the home arena of the Washington Wizards. (His shot from the foul line went in.) 

In Fremont, California, he discussed the state of the universe with eccentric visionary Elon Musk, commenting, “We should not only keep our feet on the ground and protect the earth, but also look up and think beyond.” 

The two “space cadets” then took a test drive in a Tesla. 

But it is perhaps on Twitter where Qin Gang’s personal touch is best illustrated. Twitter is banned in China as a matter of course, but that has not stopped China’s diplomatic influencers from using Twitter abroad to promote a Chinese worldview. But many of these “official” accounts can be rather caustic. 

Take this recent tweet by Zhang Meifan, PRC envoy to Belfast: 

“Truth: China is following the science. What is Western media following? Clicks and cash, truth be told!” 

Other prominent Foreign ministry officials, such as Hua Chunying, who has a whopping 1.9 million followers on Twitter, likewise tend to belittle the U.S. at every turn: 

"‘Lack of sufficient transparency?’ The same old script again. How about the U.S. ‘leading by example’ and opening #FortDetrick and its more than 300 overseas #biolab to demonstrate its ‘transparency’ first?” 

Qin Gang, writing the same week as the two sour tweets above took a decidedly sweeter tone: 

“My farewell Op-ed @washingtonpost, in which I shared beautiful memories of my time in the United States and my vision for a healthy and stable China-U.S. relationship.” 

It’s just one example, but perusing Qin Gang’s tweets in the last year suggests a sensibility that is generally kinder and gentler. If he gets into wolf warrior territory, he does it with more of a whisper than a howl. He, too, has been dubbed a wolf warrior, and has in the past said things harsh enough to justify the term. But there seems to have been a learning curve, or in any case, a realization that he has a different role to play now and that soft words sometimes speak louder than strident screams and growling denunciations. 

While he hews the party line as closely as his strident colleagues and makes the usual ritual genuflections to his boss, Wang Yi, and the boss of his boss, Xi Jinping, Qin Gang’s Twitter feed is also populated by charming, off-the-cuff comments about life in America, ranging from sincere to folksy, from corny to cordial: 

On his U.S. farewell: “What’s past is prologue. Going forward, I will continue to care about and support the growth of China-US relations, encourage dialogue, mutual understanding and affinity between the two peoples.” 

On his visit to Salt Lake City: “Deeply touched by 1979 @BYU Young Ambassadors, 1st art group to visit China since we established diplomatic relations. Like Randy said, no matter what’s happening in our world, ppl always remember the strong ties of love & friendship. Look forward to their next visit to China too!” 

At a women’s basketball competition: “Congratulations to TeamUSA for winning the championship and to TeamChina championship for its best record in its World Cup performances! The two teams presented a game of excellence!” 

When he is tasked with conveying serious PRC policy, he tries to convey the hard-line in language that he presumes Americans will understand: “‘Taiwan independence,’ like a highly destructive ‘gray rhino’ charging toward us, must be resolutely stopped. We have always worked with the greatest sincerity and effort to pursue peaceful reunification. But, we will never tolerate any activity aimed at secession.” 

As good as he is in English, and as well acquainted as he is with the U.S., Qin Gang doesn’t always get the nuances right, but the effort is admirable: 

“Let me give you a story. The first Secretary of the Treasury is Hamilton, and there's a musical called ‘Hamilton’. He had a political enemy, that is Aaron Burr. At that time he was the Vice President of the United States. And the end result was not happy. The two men had a duel. At the end of the duel, Vice President Burr lamented, the world is big enough for me and Mr. Hamilton.” 

Qin is at his diplomatic best when out in the field doing things: “Feel great to be back in the Midwest! And certainly even greater to be a farmer again, this time trying my hand on a combine, harvesting corns, soybeans and friendship at the same time. Thank you, my farmer friends!” 

Finally, it should come as some solace to America’s China watchers that the new Foreign Minister is a fan of U.S. pop culture: “Watching ##backstreetboys performing on #Wechat, feeling nostalgic about the old memories.” 

You may disagree with his taste in music, but the man knows his stuff and overall, speaks with nuance and understanding when discussing the American public and relations between the two most powerful nations in the world. 

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