What a difference a year makes. At last summer’s Aspen Security Forum, Chinese ambassador Qin Gang lit up the conference with a steely and vicious performance, blaming the U.S. for spreading a “Cold War mentality,” for escalating tensions with China, and hollowing out the One China policy. He weaponized the most sacred of American cows, Abraham Lincoln, to insist that America was backing secessionist “radicals” in Xinjiang, Hong Kong, and Taiwan. He shocked and horrified the foreign policy establishment that had gathered in this mountain resort for the ultra-wealthy, represented in Congress, hilariously, by Lauren Boebert.
At this annual gathering where the national-security set decamps from Washington to escape the swampy summer and to catch up with old friends—and network to make new ones—Qin had disrupted the chummy atmosphere, terrifying them with ominous warnings, and, exactly one year later, he was gone without a trace. In December 2022, Qin was promoted to foreign minister and was replaced in May 2023 by Xie Feng, who sat across from Semafor’s Steve Clemons last week for a fireless fireside chat and had to punt, awkwardly, on the question of what happened to his predecessor, who had vanished from public view a month ago.
There were rumors that an affair triggered his downfall, while others whispered that he fell victim to infighting in the Chinese elite. Regardless, few believed Beijing’s official explanation—“a physical condition”—and Qin’s ghost haunted the forum this year. Every American official, from C.I.A. chief Bill Burns to national security advisor Jake Sullivan, was asked about Qin’s whereabouts and none of them had any clarity to offer. “We don’t know,” Sullivan said when asked if expected to ever meet Qin again. “We genuinely don’t know.”