After China’s leader, Xi Jinping, catapulted Qin Gang into the post of foreign minister in December, Mr. Qin set a frantic pace, meeting dozens of foreign officials as he pressed Beijing’s agenda in a divided, war-stricken world.
Then Mr. Qin went silent.
As of Monday, he had not made a public appearance in three weeks. His last reported engagements were on June 25, when he held talks with diplomats from Vietnam, Russia and Sri Lanka. He was recently scheduled to meet the foreign policy chief of the European Union in Beijing, but China canceled that visit. Last week, he missed a meeting of Southeast Asian countries in Jakarta, Indonesia, to which China was invited.
Outside China, Mr. Qin’s lengthy absence has set off speculation on the internet about his health and status. Abrupt disappearances of senior Chinese officials from public life are often seen as potential signs of trouble. The mystery has seeped into conversations among diplomats and political insiders in the Chinese capital.
The Chinese government acknowledged last week that Mr. Qin, 57, would skip the Jakarta meeting, citing health reasons, but it has otherwise declined to give any details or updates. In Beijing, reporters have repeatedly asked the foreign ministry, including on Monday, questions such as when Mr. Qin would return to work, only to be told that officials had “no information” to provide.
The secrecy on the part of the government has only fueled the speculation over Mr. Qin’s absence, threatening to distract from China’s efforts to power up its diplomacy to ease tensions with Western powers and court Asian neighbors.
The episode “is embarrassing and unsettling to Chinese diplomats because of the uncertainty it injects in a system that is tightly controlled,” said Daniel R. Russel, a former senior American diplomat now at the Asia Society Policy Institute. “For foreign diplomats it raises even more questions about the bureaucratic weight of China’s foreign ministry.”
Secrecy around the personal lives and health of senior officials is ingrained in the Chinese Communist Party. In one of the more notable, and still unexplained, absences in recent times, Mr. Xi abruptly disappeared from public view for two weeks shortly before taking power in 2012, missing a meeting with the then-Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton.
It remains quite plausible that Mr. Qin fell ill and is recovering. Even so, the episode would be a telling example of how the party’s aversion to sharing bad news can undermine its efforts to control the narrative.
“Secrecy is the chosen mode of operation because for the Chinese Communist Party, information is a weapon,” said Willy Wo-Lap Lam, a senior fellow at the Jamestown Foundation, a research institute in Washington.
“But in this case, the mystery surrounding such an important official — foreign minister — is mind-boggling,” he said.
Should it turn out that Mr. Qin somehow ran afoul of the Communist Party’s leadership, it could also reflect poorly on Mr. Xi, who has used his dominance to fast-track the rise of Mr. Qin and a cohort of other loyalist officials, Mr. Lam said.
“Qin Gang was an official who, we like to say, took a helicopter ride to the top,” Mr. Lam said.
Mr. Qin was appointed China’s ambassador to Washington in July 2021, and after only 17 months was promoted to foreign minister, a rapid ascent that marked him out as one of Mr. Xi’s trusted lieutenants.
Before that, Mr. Qin served as a foreign ministry spokesman — known for his acerbic barbs — and as a senior protocol officer who organized Chinese leaders’ trips abroad, a role that gave Mr. Qin a chance to work closely with Mr. Xi.
As foreign minister, Mr. Qin has been responsible for implementing the Chinese leader’s vision of Beijing as an increasingly confident global power. In June, he met for five and a half hours with the Secretary of State, Antony J. Blinken, during the American official’s visit to Beijing, as the two nations sought to ease tensions.
Then Mr. Qin skipped the Southeast Asian meeting last week, with China sending Wang Yi, an official who ranks above Mr. Qin in the party hierarchy, in his place.
As questions have mounted over Mr. Qin’s extended absence, overseas Chinese commentators have offered theories that an affair with a television personality might be behind his problems, and the speculation has become big news in Taiwan.
Asked about the rumors on Monday, Mao Ning, a spokeswoman for the Chinese foreign ministry, said: “I have no understanding of the matter that you’ve raised.”
Despite Beijing’s reticence, speculation is also spreading among Chinese officials, said Deng Yuwen, a former editor for a Communist Party newspaper who is now a current affairs commentator in the United States. Those officials will be watching to see if Mr. Qin re-emerges or if Beijing gives more details about him, Mr. Deng said.
“Even if he has a health problem, they could find some way to bring him back out, but they haven’t yet,” Mr. Deng said. “If the outside world is speculating about Qin Gang, then naturally a lot of people inside the system are wondering too.”
Keith Bradsher and Olivia Wang contributed reporting.