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China's new foreign minister will be Qin Gang, the current ambassador to Washington

Chinese Ambassador to the US Qin Gang visits the headquarters of Sany America, a Chinese excavator and construction-equipment manufacturer, in Peachtree City, GA on on May 12.
Liu Guanguan/China News Service/Getty Images
Chinese Ambassador to the US Qin Gang visits the headquarters of Sany America, a Chinese excavator and construction-equipment manufacturer, in Peachtree City, GA on on May 12.

China has named its U.S. envoy, Qin Gang, as the new foreign minister.

The appointment, which was announced Friday, comes as Beijing's relations with Washington continue to show strain over a range of issues from trade to Taiwan. He replaced Wang Yi, 69, who was promoted to the politburo of the ruling Communist Party in October, and is expected to continue to work in foreign policy.

An active Twitter user with more than a quarter-million followers, Qin is a trusted aide to China's top leader, Xi Jinping. The 56-year-old will now become one of the youngest foreign ministers in the history of the People's Republic of China.

In solving common challenges, China's diplomacy will offer "Chinese wisdom, Chinese initiatives and Chinese strength," Qin said in his first statement as foreign minister.

But the new face of China's diplomacy has a long to-do list, ranging from U.S.-China relations to Beijing's partnership with Moscow, says Sun Yun, director of the China Program at the Stimson Center in Washington, D.C.

"His top priority would be to improve relations with the U.S., given the lingering domestic sentiment that is anti-U.S. [Secretary of State Antony] Blinken will be visiting China in two weeks. He also needs to improve relations with the developed countries in general to help China's economic recovery. Then he also needs to deal with Russia and North Korea," she says.

A familiar face in China

Qin is already a familiar face to Chinese citizens and Beijing-based foreign journalists. As a spokesperson and a deputy director-general of the Foreign Ministry's Information Department between 2005 and 2010, his aggressive approach to reporters' questions typified what's become known as China's "wolf warrior" diplomacy.

Asked by a foreign reporter in 2008 about Guns N' Roses' album "Chinese Democracy," which Chinese state media called a "venomous attack" on the nation, Qin chided the journalist: "Many people don't like this kind of music because it's too raucous and noisy." He added: "I'm guessing that you're a mature adult, aren't you?"

At home, Qin's handling of tough questions has won him applause – from Chinese media to his alma mater, the University of International Relations in Beijing, which praised him for "never beating around the bush."

He "never skirted around a question, and his attitude was clear-cut and forthright," the university wrote on its website in 2018, when Qin was promoted to a vice minister.

Qin articulated his thinking on diplomacy in an interview in 2013. "Diplomacy is complex and systematic work. It can be hard with some softness, or soft with some hardness," he said. "It can also be both hard and soft. As time and situation change, the two may transform into each other."

Qin is seen as one of Xi Jinping's trusted aides

After joining China's foreign ministry in 1988, Qin was first assigned to work for the Beijing bureau of the United Press International, a U.S. news agency, on a short stint. At the time, non-Chinese news outlets could not directly employ Chinese nationals and were assigned local employees by the authorities.

Later, as a diplomat, he cultivated a specialization in Western European affairs, serving twice in the Chinese embassy in London in the 2000s – first, as a third and second secretary, and later as a minister.

Qin's career took off when he worked at the ministry's headquarters in Beijing, where, between 2014 and 2018, he led its Protocol Department — a job in which he facilitated Xi's meetings with world leaders. In 2018, he was appointed as a vice minister before assuming the role of Chinese ambassador to the U.S. in the summer of 2021.

Qin's short stint as Beijing's top diplomat in the U.S. saw him traveling across the country, visiting farmers and chatting with Elon Musk. Upon arriving in Washington, Qin struck a conciliatory tone, telling reporters that "the door of China-U.S. relations, which is already open, cannot be closed."

He has also repeatedly insisted that the competition between the U.S. and China is "not a zero-sum game."

In an interview with NPR's Steve Inskeep in January, Qin admitted China's "most important relationship" is with the United States. But when asked about Taiwan, which Beijing considers its own, he described it as "the biggest tinderbox" in the bilateral relations.

"If the Taiwanese authorities, emboldened by the United States, keep going down the road for independence, it most likely will involve China and the United States, the two big countries, in a military conflict," he warned.

Vincent Ni is NPR's Asia Editor.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Vincent Ni