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Engaging Chinese diplomat, former anti-graft official tipped to be next foreign minister

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LA Post: Engaging Chinese diplomat, former anti-graft official tipped to be next foreign minister
Reuters
Yew Lun Tian and Laurie Chen
March 04, 2024

By Yew Lun Tian and Laurie Chen

BEIJING (Reuters) - As Beijing-based diplomats attend the annual session of China's parliament this week, one Chinese official drawing attention is a charismatic Oxford University graduate many expect to become the next foreign minister.

Liu Jianchao, 60, leads the Communist Party's body in charge of managing ties with foreign political parties. Since taking the role in 2022, he has travelled to more than 20 nations and met officials from more than 160 countries.

Liu's busy schedule, especially his meetings with U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken in Washington this year, have stoked expectations that the former ambassador and ministry spokesman is being groomed to be the next foreign minister.

Liu's appointment is not certain, given the Chinese government's opaque decision-making process.

But if chosen, he would be tasked with managing ties with Washington as both sides aim to rebuild relations after a period of unprecedented tension over issues from trade to Taiwan.

"Violent winds do not last the whole morning, sudden rain does not last a whole day," Liu told foreign diplomats in a speech at the World Peace Forum in Beijing last year that portrayed China as an agent for peace.

Diplomats in Beijing who met Liu during his recent rounds say they like his fluent English, confident and forthcoming style, and the ability to take questions and engage directly in discussions without talking points prepared in advance.

Sources also say he is well-liked and respected within the ministry, and is regarded as friendly, warm, and personable.

"This is a welcome change from other Chinese diplomats who either talk down to us in a 'wolf warrior' manner or merely repeat talking points," said one diplomat, who spoke on condition of anonymity.

Another added, "Old-school diplomacy is back."

China's current foreign minister, Wang Yi, 70, a seasoned diplomat, was re-appointed to the role after Qin Gang, a protégé of President Xi Jinping, was dismissed in June, less than a year into his term, following rumours of an extramarital affair.

Born in the northeastern province of Jilin, Liu majored in English at Beijing Foreign Studies University and studied international relations at Oxford before taking up his first post as a translator with the foreign ministry.

He has served in China's mission to Britain and later as ambassador to Indonesia and the Philippines.

During his time as ministry spokesman, he was known for humorous off-the-cuff comments while making a no-nonsense defence of China's interests.

During one briefing in 2008, Liu was asked about an Iraqi reporter who threw a pair of shoes at then U.S. President George W. Bush. He said: "Maybe I need to watch out, not just for who is raising their hands, but who is taking off their shoes."

CHARM OFFENSIVE

Neil Thomas, a fellow on Chinese politics at the Asia Society, said Liu was the frontrunner to become China's next foreign minister and the parliament session would be a high-profile opportunity to announce such a promotion.

"Beijing is trying to project a friendlier image to the world to stabilise markets, revive foreign investment, and slow the pace of Western efforts to curb economic linkages with China," Thomas added.

But while Beijing has toned down its "wolf warrior" diplomacy it has not changed its ambition to make China a far more powerful actor in international affairs, he added.

"China is pursuing the same goals but now with a smarter strategy."

Liu's diplomatic career took an unusual detour in 2015 when he was transferred to two posts involved in anti-corruption work.

That included a stint in the international office of China's top anti-graft body, where he helped track down and co-ordinate the repatriation of corrupt Chinese officials who fled overseas.

The second stint was in the affluent province of Zhejiang, where he helped launch an anti-graft reform important for Xi's signature anti-corruption push that was later adopted for nationwide rollout.

"Liu, with his background in anti-corruption and local party governance, has a sterling and demonstrated reputation of loyalty to the party and to Xi Jinping," said Dennis Wilder, a China specialist at Georgetown University.

Liu returned to diplomacy in 2018 in the office of the Communist Party's Central Foreign Affairs Commission. As its deputy director, he worked closely to assist Yang Jiechi, then China's top diplomat and a former foreign minister.

While serving again as foreign minister since July, Wang has retained his other job as China's top diplomat, or director of the party's foreign affairs office, an elite body chaired by Xi that has more say on foreign policy than the ministry.

That is why many see Wang as a temporary solution until a longer-term replacement is found for Qin. 

For now, foreign ministry officials are staying tight-lipped, although they told diplomats that since Liu was born in the year of the dragon, according to the Chinese zodiac, and 2024 is the year of the dragon, that "good things will happen".

(Reporting by Yew Lun Tian and Laurie Chen; Additional reporting by Antoni Slodkowski; Editing by James Pomfret and Clarence Fernandez)

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