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As its next ambassador to the U.S., China has dispatched a veteran diplomat known for pushing back against Western criticism — in an appointment that suggests Beijing is bracing for a period of prolonged tension with Washington.

Qin Gang, 55, who most recently served as vice foreign minister, arrived in the U.S. Wednesday to fill the post vacated last month by long-time ambassador, Cui Tiankai, according to a statement from the Chinese Embassy.

Qin said at a press briefing that he would work “to safeguard the foundation of China-U.S. relations, uphold the shared interests of the two peoples and endeavor to bring China-U.S. relations back on track.” The ties that have been opened between the countries “cannot be closed,” Qin’s said.

His arrival was accompanied by a commentary from the official Xinhua News Agency warning that it was “unrealistic to solve the fundamental differences between the two countries quickly,” and placing the onus on the U.S. to treat China as an equal.

Qin, a first-time ambassador, will instantly become Beijing’s most important overseas envoy. He will be responsible for shepherding relations between the world’s two largest economies as they lock horns on issues ranging from trade to technology, human rights and the South China Sea.

The announcement, which had been anticipated for months, comes days after a contentious round of talks between senior U.S. and Chinese diplomats.

On Monday, Foreign Minister Wang Yi reiterated Beijing’s demands during a visit to Tianjin by Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman, urging the U.S. to stop criticizing China’s political system, drop all sanctions and tariffs, and stay out of Hong Kong, Taiwan and Xinjiang affairs.

U.S. President Joe Biden still hasn’t installed an envoy in Beijing: Former Ambassador to NATO Nicholas Burns has been seen as a favorite for the post.

China’s relations with the West, and the U.S. in particular, have grown far more fraught since Beijing last named an envoy to Washington eight years ago. Some 76% of Americans said they viewed the world’s most populous nation unfavorably, up 3 percentage points from last year, according to a survey released earlier this month by the Pew Research Center.

Nevertheless, Chinese President Xi Jinping, who faces increasing domestic calls to stand up to foreign pressure, has signaled a willingness to maintain an assertive stance on the world stage. In a speech marking the 100th anniversary of the ruling Communist Party this month, Xi vowed that China “will never allow any foreign forces to bully, coerce and enslave us.”

While relatively unknown outside diplomatic circles, Qin has long been an active combatant in China’s battles with the West.

He was born in the port city of Tianjin in March 1966 — just weeks before Mao Zedong launched his Cultural Revolution — and went on to study at the University of International Relations in Beijing, a school with close ties to both the Foreign Ministry and China’s primary spy agency, the Ministry of State Security.

Qin worked at United Press International in Beijing, including a stint cutting press clippings for foreign correspondents, before joining the Foreign Ministry. He was eventually assigned to the Department of West European Affairs, rotating between Beijing and London while working his way up the ranks.

“To a diplomat, being posted abroad is something like a lucky draw. Being posted to Britain is like winning the grand prize,” Qin said in a 2010 speech in London. “The more I know about this country, the more I feel I need to know and to understand. I am still a student of Britain.”

Qin gained notoriety for colorful rhetoric when he was appointed Foreign Ministry spokesman in 2005 as Beijing was preparing to host the Olympics. In that role, he said demands for greater military transparency from China was as “if someone always tears through your clothes and even wants to lift open your underwear,” and described Western media coverage of Tibet as a “textbook of bad examples.”

In 2013, Qin demanded that U.S. broadcaster ABC “face its mistakes head on” after a skit by late night TV host Jimmy Kimmel prompted anger in China. More recently, Qin led the Foreign Ministry’s response to European and U.K. sanctions over Xinjiang, summoning the British ambassador, Caroline Wilson, and condemning the move by Brussels.

Qin said China had “unwavering determination to safeguard national sovereignty, security and development interests” and vowed “necessary and legitimate responses to the U.K.’s wrongdoings” in his meeting with Wilson.

Qin’s rise accelerated after he served as diplomatic protocol chief, during which he oversaw Xi’s 2016 state visit to the U.S. In a 2018 interview with a Chinese documentary crew, he explained how he viewed his job as a way to assert geopolitical power.

“Protocol is an expression of politics and a barometer for relations between countries,” Qin said. When “each country gives President Xi an especially high standard of reception, that’s a recognition of China’s major power status and a high-level recognition of President Xi’s demeanor as a statesman.”

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