[BBC] Speculation on Qin Gang remained rampant on Wednesday, a day after he was removed as China’s foreign minister just seven months into the job.
No reason was given for Mr Qin’s removal, which was announced after an emergency meeting on Tuesday.
His predecessor Wang Yi has been reappointed to the post.
Official silence over Mr Qin’s unexplained disappearance from public view for the past month had sparked speculation both in China and abroad.
Social media on Wednesday was full of searches and speculation over his abrupt dismissal.
Tuesday’s brief announcement on state media which said only “China’s top legislature voted to appoint Wang Yi as foreign minister”, has only added fuel to the fire.
It is unusual for rumours about such a senior official to be discussed on the Chinese internet without complete censorship, observers say.
“The absence of censorship makes people wonder if there is any truth to rumours about power struggles, corruption, the abuse of power and positions, and romantic relationships,” Ian Chong from the National University of Singapore told the BBC last week.
This was reflected in the top search terms on Weibo which included queries about his wife and an alleged mistress.
The 57-year-old, seen as a close associate of Chinese President Xi Jinping, was one of the youngest appointees to the post in China’s history.
Just over a month ago, he met US Secretary of State Antony Blinken in Beijing as the two sides sought to restore diplomatic contacts at the highest level.
Qin Gang’s fall from grace was as unexpected and abrupt as his elevation, Daniel Russel from the Asia Society Policy Institute said.
“Since both moves are attributed to China’s leader, this episode will be seen as an embarrassing lapse in judgment at the top.”
Mr Qin’s rise to become foreign minister was meteoric.
After less than two years in the role of ambassador to the US, where he gained a reputation as a tough-talking “wolf-warrior” diplomat, he was named foreign minister last December.
Before that, he had been a foreign ministry spokesman and had helped organise Mr Xi’s trips overseas – which gave him the opportunity to work closely with China’s leader.
Ian Johnson, a senior fellow for China studies at the Council on Foreign Relations in Washington, said the episode involving Mr Qin adds to “a string of very public problems” that Mr Xi has been confronted with in the last 12 months.
A new foreign minister will likely be announced by the National People’s Congress next March, Mr Johnson said.
“That will give them time to vet everyone perhaps a little more carefully… and get somebody else in charge.”
Under the Chinese Communist Party system, foreign policy is formulated by a high-level official, who then directs the foreign minister to implement it.
Qin Gang was one of the best-known faces of the Chinese government.
When he disappeared from his normal duties a month ago and failed to attend a summit in Indonesia, the very brief official explanation given was unspecified health problems.
His meeting with European Union foreign policy chief Josep Borrell, initially scheduled for 4 July, was then pushed back by China with no explanation, further fuelling rumours.
Asked about Mr Qin’s whereabouts on Tuesday, hours before news broke of his removal, a ministry spokeswoman repeated her earlier line that she had no information – highlighting China’s secrecy and the opacity of its system of government.
Mr Qin is one of the most high-level officials in the Chinese Communist Party to have been absent for this long.
But it is not uncommon for high-profile figures in China to go out of public view for long periods of time, only to surface later as the subject of a criminal investigation. Or they could reappear with no explanation.
Xi Jinping himself vanished for a fortnight shortly before becoming China’s leader in 2012, prompting speculation about his health and possible power struggles within the party.
Wang Yi, a career diplomat who speaks Japanese, is returning to a post he held between 2013 and 2022. The 69-year-old has been standing in for Mr Qin in recent weeks.
Mr Wang was promoted to the Politburo of the ruling Chinese Communist Party last year and is concurrently the head of the party’s Central Foreign Affairs Commission.
Observers see his appointment as a move to stabilise Chinese diplomacy.
“Wang Yi has held the [foreign minister] position before. He’s clearly a fireman or caretaker who has been sent in to right the ship to keep Chinese foreign policy going smoothly. And I think he’ll do that because he’s very, a very capable official,” Mr Johnson said.
Rorry Daniels, a senior fellow at the Center for China Analysis, said Mr Wang’s appointment “bodes well for continuing the stabilisation of US-China relations”.
“With a series of major international meetings coming up, Xi defaulted to someone who has relationships with many of his foreign counterparts. In times of uncertainty, China wants continuity and predictability in this position,” he said.