One of the most senior politicians in China, a so-called “wolf warrior” diplomat seen as a protégé of leader Xi Jinping, has been mysteriously fired.
Qin Gang, 57, who had served as the nation’s foreign minister since December, has not been seen for a month.
Wild rumours, which Beijing had notably failed to quell, included that Mr Qin may have a US love child or be embroiled in a corruption scandal.
But China watchers have also said the removal of someone so trusted could be a sign of “political instability” with the Xi regime.
In the Communist Party hierarchy, political appointments are decided behind closed doors and with the office holder remaining in post for some time.
So to have Mr Qin dumped so early into his tenure and him disappear from view has fuelled speculation as to his fate.
Mr Qin’s departure was confirmed in a hastily convened meeting of the National People’s Congress Standing Committee, the main legislative body of China, on Tuesday.
No reason was given for Mr Qin’s removal. He will be replaced by Wang Yi, who was foreign minister for almost a decade up until 2022.
Mr Qin, a former Chinese ambassador to Washington, had been busy up until a month ago including meeting US secretary of state Antony Blinken on June 18.
He had been key in attempts to mend Beijing’s recently rocky relationship with DC.
The last public appearance of Mr Qin was on June 25, when he met the foreign ministers of Russia, Vietnam and Sri Lanka.
But then he vanished from view. He failed to meet New Zealand Prime Minister Chris Hipkins or US Treasury secretary Janet Yellen on their respective Beijing visits and didn’t go to the important Association of Southeast Asian Nations’ meeting in Indonesia earlier in July.
At first, the Chinese foreign ministry said he was suffering from a health issue. It then simply stopped answering questions as to Mr Qin’s whereabouts.
The fact these social media rumours were allowed to be disseminated led some to believe he had fallen out of favour with the party elites.
That’s despite Mr Qin’s impeccable CV and closeness to Xi Jinping.
Outspoken and nationalistic, Mr Qin’s style of diplomacy was tough and abrasive, ditching diplomatic niceties, common of the “wolf warriors” of Beijing.
His stint as China’s top official in Washington meant he was in the communist party’s inner circle.
So what caused him to vanish, if it wasn’t ill health, has set tongues wagging.
“It is a very bad look for (China) to have their foreign minister disappear,” said prominent analyst Bill Bishop on his Sharp China podcast, earlier this month.
“The absence of any information since his last appearance … just fuels the rumours, from health to an affair and child out of wedlock to being caught up in a spy case.
“It’s my personal guess that it is less and less likely to be a simple health issue.”
One of the most persistent rumours is that he had an affair while ambassador to the US with Hong Kong-based Phoenix TV personality Fu Xiaotian.
Ms Fu apparently had a baby last year – several months after interviewing Mr Qin. If it was born in the US, it would be eligible for American citizenship.
She had been a cheerleader for Mr Qin, taking to social media to wish him happy birthday and congratulate him on new roles, also raising eyebrows.
Ms Fu, too, has reportedly not been seen for some time.
China’s officials have vanished previously. Often they have then reappeared accused of being in a corruption scandal or seeking public forgiveness for misdemeanours such as not paying all their taxes.
Mr Qin’s fall from one of Beijing’s most powerful roles could reflect badly on Mr Xi, some have said.
“Qin Gang was single-handedly pulled up the ranks by Xi,” DEng Yuwen, the former editor of a Communist Party newspaper, told CNN earlier this month.
“Any problems with him will reflect badly on Xi too – implying that Xi failed to choose the right person for the job.
“If anything unusual happened to a senior official, people will wonder if their relations with the top leader have soured or whether it is a sign of political instability.”
– with Jamie Seidel.