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China Ex-Foreign Minister: Spy or State Secret Keeper? 

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FILE - Chinese President Xi Jinping walks by then newly elected Chinese Foreign Minister Qin Gang during the closing ceremony for China's National People's Congress at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing, March 13, 2023.
FILE - Chinese President Xi Jinping walks by then newly elected Chinese Foreign Minister Qin Gang during the closing ceremony for China's National People's Congress at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing, March 13, 2023.

When China opened its annual National People's Congress in Beijing on Tuesday, one rising star from last year's gathering was absent: former foreign minister Qin Gang.

Ahead of this year's meetings, China's state media announced that Qin had resigned as an NPC delegate. That announcement, however, did little to unify opinion as to why Qin has not been seen in public since late June of last year and why he was abruptly removed from office seven months after he started.

Reports citing anonymous and connected sources have suggested that his disappearance could be linked to espionage and that perhaps he has died or committed suicide. Some have focused on an alleged romantic relationship he had with a former Chinese TV program host Fu Xiaotian, who also has not been seen in public since she posted a message on Twitter last April while en route to unspecified destination.

Espionage?

Dennis Wilder, a former U.S. national security official, told VOA: "Try to get a Chinese to say what the story is on Qin Gang, you won't get it. Because they can't talk about it, because the truth is, it is espionage."

Others disagree, including Nigel Inkster, former head of operations and intelligence at the British Secret Intelligence Service, also known as the MI6. News of Qin's resignation confirmed reports Inkster had heard "a couple of months ago" that Qin was still alive, and that his case "would be settled soon," Inkster told VOA in a phone interview from London.

In a report in early December, online media news outlet Politico quoted "several people with access to high-level Chinese officials" who said Qin, along with several other top officers in China's People's Liberation Army, had been compromised by Western intelligence. A February 12 column published in The Washington Post mentioned rumors that Qin was a Russian asset.

"They can't both be true, can they?" Inkster said.

June Teufel Dreyer, an American political scientist and China specialist, also doubts Qin's downfall was a result of espionage.

"What would be his motive?" she said. "What could foreign intelligence services offer him that he didn't already have?"

That said, an extramarital affair and fathering a child outside of marriage could have made Qin vulnerable to foreign powers' blackmail, Dreyer added. Inkster agrees.

"If it was the Russians [who compromised Qin], it's probably because they've got something on him," he said.

Both analysts see more questions surrounding Fu, Qin's rumored romantic partner.

Mystery around Fu Xiaotian

In July 2023, as Qin's disappearance seized worldwide attention, interest was also growing in an April 10 post on X by Fu. The post included a picture of her holding a baby on board an airplane and a caption saying she had been on the same plane a year earlier for a flight to Washington, where she interviewed Qin.

At first, it wasn't clear whether the airplane featured prominently in her post was a commercial or private jet. But later photos Fu posted on social media confirmed that it was a private jet.

According to Federal Aviation Administration records, the Gulfstream G650ER N333GW has Rolls-Royce engines and 22 seats. Its current owner is listed as Salt Lake City-based Bank of Utah Trustee. An X user with the handle itweetcatsndogs also found linkage between the jet and Sino Jet, a Beijing and Hong Kong-based aircraft leasing and operating company.

Online flight tracking records show that the jet flew from Los Angeles, California, and landed in Beijing on April 11 before traveling on to Hong Kong.

Dreyer told VOA that she finds it "definitely unusual" for Fu to be flown in a private jet both for work when she interviewed Qin, and when she and her son flew back to Beijing and/or Hong Kong last April.

"If Ms. Fu isn't independently wealthy, then someone, or some people, are subsidizing her," Dreyer said, noting that Fu's connections might be above Qin's pay grade.

"There's definitely something fishy about this story," she told VOA.

In an investigative report last September, CNN said it had spoken to people who knew Fu and they said Fu's mother was a teacher in her hometown, Chongqing, while her father worked in a managerial position at a production facility. Experts interviewed by CNN also raised questions about Fu's identity as it came to light that the coastal mansion where Fu stayed in Los Angeles was listed for rent at $55,000 a month in 2021.

In her Weibo posts, Fu admitted to being lonely in spite of being surrounded by luxury, and told her followers that she began taking antidepressants in January 2023, posting herself holding bottles of the prescribed drug on March 14, 2023, less than a month before she flew out of L.A.

In 2016 — years before Qin's disappearance — Fu had made headlines in the U.K. for making a large donation to Cambridge University.

"I have no idea what happened there, I can't explain it," admitted Inkster, who now advises the London-based International Institute for Strategic Studies on China and directs geostrategic and intelligence-related analysis at Enodo Economics.

"But it's quite clear that somebody else was putting up the funding for that. There's no way Fu Xiaotian herself could have done it," Inkster said.

Something else that puzzles observers is the fact that Cambridge University's Churchill College went out of its way to name a garden after Fu. The college's website says that was done in connection with "a series of generous gifts" Fu pledged in 2016.

Those pledges happened around the time that China pledged significant investments to Britain during Chinese Communist Party General Secretary Xi Jinping's state visit to the country in October 2015. Xi's wife, Peng Liyuan, accompanied Xi on that trip.

Clause in new law

One other interesting twist. On February 27, the same day China announced Qin's resignation from the NPC, state media unveiled an amended Law on Guarding State Secrets. According to Chinese media reports, the revisions were prompted by pressure from certain NPC Standing Committee members who were concerned about individuals who may stand to lose "rights and benefits."

Article 43 now stipulates that "for those with knowledge of state secrets whose lawful rights and benefits are impacted due to reasons that have to do with the guarding of state secrets, they ought to be accorded appropriate rank and benefits, or be compensated accordingly, by the state."

Meanwhile, Article 21 of the law says that the scope of knowledge of state secrets ought to be kept "within the smallest possible circle." Further, "Whenever possible, the information ought to be kept to the single designated individual."

Dreyer, who teaches at the University of Miami in Florida, finds the timing of Qin's resignation and this special clause's coming into being "cause for suspicion," as she put it, wondering if those clauses might be connected to Qin's case, even in the absence of direct reference.

"Except for when Mao [Zedong] named Lin Biao [as his successor in the official party constitution], no one has ever been named" in legislation, she said.

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