China’s new envoy to the US, Qin Gang, struck a conciliatory tone in his debut press conference upon arrival in Washington DC on Wednesday.
“I believe that the door of China-US relations, which is already open, cannot be closed,” Qin said, adding he would “endeavour to bring [bilateral] relations back on track, turning the way for the two countries to get along with each other … from a possibility into a reality.
“China and the United States are entering a new round of mutual exploration, understanding and adaptation, trying to find a way to get along with each other in the new era,” Qin said, signalling Beijing’s thinking on the current state of the relationship, and invoking memories of the former US national security adviser Henry Kissinger’s trailblazing cold war-era visit to Beijing.
Qin is one of Xi Jinping’s most trusted senior diplomats. In recent years, the 55-year-old has been seen accompanying the Chinese president on his overseas trips and meetings with foreign leaders.
A former news assistant at United Press International’s bureau in Beijing, Qin became a diplomat in 1992 and has served in various capacities at the Chinese embassy in London three times throughout his career.
Qin’s appointment to Washington comes at a time when the US foreign policy establishment is in the midst of a fundamental rethink of its ties with Beijing. The bilateral relationship is at its lowest ebb since its establishment in 1979.
Like his predecessor Donald Trump, Joe Biden has pledged to deal with China “from a position of strength” in what he calls “the biggest geopolitical test” of this century. On Monday, the Chinese vice-foreign minister Xie Feng accused the US of treating the country as an “imaginary enemy” in a message to the visiting US deputy secretary of state, Wendy Sherman.
Since Qin’s appointment, observers of Chinese diplomacy have been debating whether he will bring Beijing’s controversial “wolf warrior” style to its most consequential diplomatic posting. His predecessor, Cui Tiankai, an old-school Chinese diplomat, has largely distanced himself from rancorous rhetoric against his host country.
After serving as Chinese Ambassador to the US for over 8 years, I will be leaving my post and returning to China this week. It's an honor of a lifetime to represent my country in the US. I want to thank everyone who has supported my performance of duties over the years.
— Cui Tiankai (@AmbCuiTiankai) June 22, 2021
Yet, as a former foreign ministry spokesperson, Qin is known for his uncompromising handling of foreign media and defending China’s image.
In 2009, he chided a BBC journalist when answering a question about China’s “Green Dam” internet filtering system. “Do you know what this software is about?” he asked the reporter. “Do you have kids?” he continued. The exchange won him praise in a Chinese-language article in 2010.
In explaining his understanding of Chinese diplomacy, Qin said in 2013 that China’s diplomacy cannot simply be evaluated in terms of “soft” and “hard”. “The fundamental starting point for our diplomatic work is how to better safeguard national interests as well as world peace and development,” he said.
“Diplomacy is complex and systematic work. It can be hard with some softness, or soft with some hardness. It can also be both hard and soft. As time and situation change, the two may transform into each other.”
Before his ambassadorship to the US, Qin served as China’s vice-minister of foreign affairs from 2018, and before that the ministry protocol department’s director general from 2014.
In 2015, he accompanied Xi on his visit to the US. Qin struck an impression as one who is “willing to ruffle feathers without hesitation when he felt it was necessary”, according to Ryan Hass, former China director at the US national security council under Obama, during Xi’s visit.
“Qin Gang was very attentive to how his leader would be portrayed and the image that his leader’s public appearances would send,” Hass told the New York Times. “This was particularly the case around President Xi’s state visit to the White House.”