Qin Gang: From Wimbledon umpire to China’s foreign minister



Author: Benjamin kang Lim, Global Affairs Correspondent from The Strait Times

BEIJING - What do a career diplomat and a certified professional tennis umpire have in common?

Both jobs require the ability to stay calm and focused under pressure and have great communication skills, among other things.

China’s newly minted Foreign Minister Qin Gang is both.

The trusted aide of President Xi Jinping took over from Mr Wang Yi as the country’s 12th foreign minister on Dec 30. At age 56, he is one of the youngest to make the cut since the founding of the People’s Republic of China in 1949.

But few know that Mr Qin became a bona fide professional tennis umpire in 1994, two years after he joined the foreign service. He officiated International Tennis Federation, Association of Tennis Professionals and Women’s Tennis Association matches as chair and line umpires whenever his schedule permitted.

During his stint at the Chinese Embassy in London from 1995 to 2005, he also intermittently refereed Wimbledon qualifying matches until 1998, when his day job as a diplomat became too hectic.

In private, Mr Qin is known to have something of a temper. But in public, he has managed to keep his cool under pressure.

During his recently concluded tour of duty as China’s 11th ambassador to the US, he was interrupted 23 times in nine minutes by CBS news anchor Margaret Brennan on the programme, Face the Nation, in March 2022.

He did not snap during the interview in which he defended China’s ambiguous stand on Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, winning the sympathy of many Chinese netizens who lambasted Ms Brennan after a clip went viral on social media.

While serving as deputy director-general of the Foreign Ministry’s Information Department from 2005 to 2010 and its head from 2011 to 2014, Mr Qin did not always stick to the script, unlike his colleagues. When taking questions from journalists, he sought to shed as much light as possible on China’s foreign policy decisions.

A fluent English speaker, Mr Qin has been known to turn on his charms fluidly.

He stepped off the stage after his first news briefing as Foreign Ministry spokesman to shake hands with journalists.

Born in 1966 in China’s northern port city of Tianjin, Mr Qin graduated from the University of International Relations in 1988 with a bachelor’s degree in international politics. He has even worked for an American news organisation previously, as a news assistant at the Beijing bureau of the American news agency United Press International.

During his time as ambassador to the US, which began in July 2021, Mr Qin also tried to endear himself to the American public by shooting free throws at a basketball game between the Washington Wizards – known as the Washington Bullets in 1979 when it became the first National Basketball Association team to visit China – and the Philadelphia 76ers.

He also donned a St Louis Cardinals T-shirt and threw the first pitch at a baseball game.

The bespectacled Mr Qin is clear-eyed about where China-US relations should head, even though he was cold-shouldered by Washington during his 17-month stint – the shortest of China’s 11 top envoys to Washington.

Mr Qin apparently had limited access in Washington to senior Biden administration officials, although diplomats in Beijing have also complained of the same treatment when it comes to Chinese leaders.

His diplomatic mandate now is to repair rocky relations with the US, which increasingly sees China as a competitor, if not a threat, and is frustrated the world’s second-biggest economy has not become a liberal democracy after more than four decades of engagement.

In a tweet, the outgoing ambassador had thanked the American people and said he was “deeply impressed” by them, and promised to continue to work on growing the relationship.

Bilateral relations have hit a nadir since normalisation in 1979, over Covid-19, trade, technology, Taiwan, Tibet, Hong Kong, Xinjiang, the disputed South China Sea and the Russian invasion of Ukraine.

Now that Mr Qin will soon be hosting his new counterpart US Secretary of State Antony Blinken, who is set to make his first China visit in the next few months, the hope is that his tenure in the US will pave the way for the bilateral relationship to improve.

“It hinges on whether Washington’s deeds match its words,” a source familiar with Beijing’s foreign policy told The Straits Times, requesting anonymity. “It would be wrong for hawks in the US to see our sincerity as weakness.”

For decades, an impoverished China looked up to and learnt from the US after emerging from diplomatic isolation, but insiders say there is now consensus in the leadership that China will no longer put up with perceived US bullying and lecturing.

Chairman Mao Zedong’s saying, “He who does not offend me, I shall not offend; he who offends me, I shall definitely offend (in retaliation)”, best encapsulates Mr Xi’s mindset, they said.

Mr Qin became familiar with the President’s thinking while serving as director general of the Foreign Ministry’s Protocol Department from 2014 to 2017, arranging Mr Xi’s meetings with visiting dignitaries.

The new foreign minister will also seek to improve relations with the European Union, neighbours Russia, South-east Asia and Central Asia as well as the Middle East and Africa. It will also be his remit to expand his country’s influence, such as growing the membership of the Brics grouping and China led regional bloc Shanghai Cooperation Organisation.

While Mr Qin’s rise has been meteoric, the writing was on the wall since he was elected one of 205 full members of the Communist Party of China’s Central Committee at the party’s 20th national congress in October – making him the first Chinese ambassador to the US to join the exclusive club.