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China Moves Russia Defender Out of Line for Foreign Minister Job

·3 min read

(Bloomberg) -- China’s decision to transfer one of its most high-profile diplomats -- and most senior Russia experts -- to a state media regulator is fanning speculation that Beijing’s tensions with the West may be weighing on the appointment of the country’s next foreign minister.

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Former Vice Foreign Minister Le Yucheng, 59, who has frequently stood in for Foreign Minister Wang Yi in recent months, has been appointed as the deputy director of the National Radio and Television Administration, according to a statement posted on a government website. The lateral move out of the Foreign Ministry removes the Russian-speaking Le from the running to replace Wang, 68, one of China’s most visible officials on the world stage.

“Beijing’s decision to remove Le from the foreign affairs system could reflect concern among Communist Party leaders that China has become too close to Russia, whose invasion of Ukraine has damaged ties with the West and weakened the global economy, and now needs foreign ministry leaders more adept at managing relations with the United States and European Union,” said Neil Thomas, a China analyst at Eurasia Group, the political risk advisory and consulting firm.

“However, the opacity of Chinese elite politics makes it impossible to know the exact reasons for Le’s move,” he said.

The transfer comes as the ruling Communist Party shifts officials around in preparation for a twice-a-decade party congress later this year, in which President Xi Jinping, 69, is expected to secure a third term as leader. The event will overhaul the party’s top ranks, clearing the way for subsequent changes to top government jobs.

Under traditional retirement rules, the country’s top diplomatic official, Politburo member Yang Jiechi, 72, would be expected to step down. That opens the possibility for Wang, who also holds the title of state counselor, to take up Yang’s more senior role leading the party’s foreign affairs commission.

The move will increase scrutiny on other contenders, including Liu Jieyi, 64, the head of the Taiwan Affairs Office, and Liu Haixing, 59, an official with Xi’s National Security Commission. Earlier this month, Liu Jianchao, 58, was named as the head of the party’s International Liaison Department, which interacts with overseas political parties.

Why China’s 2022 Party Congress Will Be a Landmark: QuickTake

Le served several stints in the former Soviet Union and Russia, before becoming ambassador to Kazakhstan in 2013. He became the Foreign Ministry’s No. 3 official in 2018, as Xi’s ties with Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin flourished.

Le has been at the frontlines in responding to criticism of China’s “wolf warrior” diplomacy, describing the label as an extension of the idea that the country’s rise poses a threat to the world. In January, he called on the US government to wake up from its “old imperial dream” of pressuring China into silence.

A day after Xi’s most recent call with US President Joe Biden in March, Le issued a lengthy denunciation of America’s foreign policy and alliance network, blaming Washington for Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. “One watches its own arms dealers, bankers and oil tycoons make a fortune out of the war, while leaving people of a small country with the wounds of war that would take years to heal. This is highly immoral and irresponsible,” Le said.

In February, Le declared that the expansion of ties between the nations has “no terminal, but only a filling station.” He similarly pledged in an April meeting with Russian envoy Andrey Denisov that China would strengthen strategic ties “no matter how the international landscape may change.”

Le’s move may be especially damaging to his career because he will remain at a vice-ministerial rank, said Thomas, of Eurasia Group. He’ll have to retire when he turns 60 next year, unless he can secure a ministerial level promotion before then.

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