Cui Tiankai, who has served as China’s ambassador to the United States for eight years, issued a farewell letter on June 21. The latter part of his tenure coincided with a period when U.S.-China relations gradually moved from cooperation to confrontation, witnessing a historic turn in relations between the two countries. Cui Tiankai’s position between China and the U.S. is generally seen as moderate by outsiders. But Washington is more concerned that his fabled successor will change that style.
Cui Tiankai is 68 years old, and perhaps because of his age, he has generally given the outside world a milder, steadier impression during his eight years in Washington. Although U.S.-China relations are undergoing the most stunning changes in four decades during the second half of his tenure, he is not an ignitionist at the forefront of the U.S.-China encounter in Washington.
The Power of Gentleness
When Tim Heath, a senior fellow at the RAND Corporation, a Washington think tank, spoke to the station about his impressions of Cui Tiankai, the first thing he mentioned was the latter’s criticism of his colleagues’ conspiracy theories against the U.S. “He [Cui Tiankai] exerted a moderating influence in the very tense U.S.-China relationship, for example, by criticizing the more extreme conspiracy theories of his Foreign Ministry colleagues and and distanced himself from them. And he doesn’t usually make inflammatory statements.”
He Tianmu is referring here to Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian’s claim that the source of the Wuhan virus was the United States at the beginning of last year’s new crown outbreak. In an interview with U.S. media, Cui Tiankai said such rumors were “crazy,” showing that he was drawing a line in the sand with his colleagues.
But He Tianmu also noted that Cui served China’s interests well in his position, “Cui Tiankai has vigorously defended the Chinese government’s repressive policies of ethnic cleansing against Tibetans, Uighurs and other minorities.”
In 2018, at the beginning of the U.S.-China trade dispute, Cui Tiankai defended the “Made in China 2025” program in a conversation with former U.S. Secretary of Defense William Cohen at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a Washington think tank. In his defense, he said the program is open to all and is not intended to be homogeneous. Cohen then asked him in return if the program was open to all in terms of artificial intelligence, electronic communications and cloud services.
But Xia Yeliang, a former Peking University economics professor and liberal supremacist scholar, believes that overall Cui Tiankai played a facilitating role in the U.S.-China trade war, “Cui Tiankai played a neutralizing role to some extent, because as ambassador to the U.S., he knows more about the U.S. He gave the Chinese Communist Party a warning role mainly. He is not the kind of war wolf, I want to bite, I want to kill.”
At the same time, Cui Tiankai is ideologically in step with the Chinese government, like other Chinese diplomats. In his June 21 letter of resignation to the entire U.S. diaspora, he called for the diaspora to make a unique contribution to the realization of the Chinese dream of the great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation.
In the words of He Tianmu, Cui Tiankai is the right person to be China’s ambassador to the United States.
The transition of the old and the new raises concerns
Cui Tiankai, a translator from the Chinese Foreign Ministry, has served as deputy director, director, and counselor of the International Department of the Foreign Ministry, and has held important positions such as spokesman for the Foreign Ministry and minister-counselor of the Chinese Mission to the United Nations. Before he became China’s ambassador to the United States in 2013, he served as vice minister of foreign affairs.
“He was promoted step by step, and never seemed to have been promoted beyond his rank, so this person is quite moderate in terms of character and personality,” Xia Yeliang believes.
Cui Tiankai stepped down from his post long before the rumors, the news out of the seemingly uneventful. What has attracted more attention is who his successor will be.
Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian remained tight-lipped when answering media inquiries at a press conference on June 22, saying only that there was no news authorized to be released at the moment.
Hong Kong’s South China Morning Post reported that the current Chinese Vice Foreign Minister Qin Gang is Cui Tiankai’s successor. In April, the Global Times, which has an official background, also reported the possibility of Qin Gang becoming China’s ambassador to the U.S., which some believe is an indication of official acquiescence to the news. Qin’s curriculum vitae has also been repeatedly studied.
Qin Gang, who is believed to replace Cui Tiankai as China’s ambassador to the U.S. (Chinese Foreign Ministry website)
RAND’s He Tianmu said that from the available information, there are concerns in Washington if Qin Gang succeeds China as ambassador to the U.S. “He is more aggressive in his defense of China, more inclined to disparage the West inside and outside of his words, and also more confident in China, but he doesn’t have that old-school diplomat’s confidence like Cui Tiankai.”
He believes that Qin is closer to the style of “war wolf diplomacy” and fears that he will bring more damage to U.S.-China relations.
In February, at a briefing at the Foreign Ministry, in response to accusations of China’s “war wolf diplomacy,” Qin retorted that some countries and individuals are the “bad wolves” for smearing and slandering China.
Qin, who is currently in charge of European regional affairs and press and protocol work at the Foreign Ministry, was seen as the “closest person to Xi Jinping” when he visited the United States in 2015.