Cui Tiankai, China's longest-serving ambassador to the US in history, is leaving Washington after eight years as Beijing's top diplomat in the West, a departure that's coming at a particularly tense time for US-China bilateral relations.
In a statement, Cui said the bilateral relationship is at a "crossroads", and called on Chinese people in the US to defend their right to live in the country, and to "shoulder a great responsibility and mission" in bolstering the relationship between the world's two largest economies.
"Sino-US relations are at a critical crossroads, and the US’s China policy is undergoing a new round of restructure, facing a choice between dialogue and cooperation, or confrontation and conflict," Cui said in the letter.
"At this moment, overseas Chinese in the United States shoulder a greater responsibility and mission. I hope you will continue to be a firm promoter and positive contributor to the healthy and stable development of Sino-US relations, and defend your right to be in the US...and safeguard the fundamental interests of the Chinese and American people to promote world peace, stability and prosperity."
Cui's tour in the US began during the Obama Administration, and included the Trump years, when the US waged a trade war against China that led to both sides hiking tariffs and imposing other new trade barriers. As opposed to China's infamous "wolf warrior" diplomats, Cui is known in the West as a moderate. Yet he presided over other upheavals, including tit-for-tat closures of consulates and restrictions slapped on foreign journalists by both the US and China. Cui has also dismissed reporting on China's human-rights abuses in Xinjiang and the illegal (under international law) crackdown on Hong Kong as "fake news".
However, Cui gained respect in Washington after pushing back against a narrative (cooked up by Beijing's propagandists) that COVID-19 was started by the American military.
The diplomat's departure has been rumored for months. "He's been getting very tired," one source told the Guardian.
"Cui was getting very tired and had been wanting to leave for some years," J Michael Cole said, citing diplomatic sources in Washington.
"He leaves at a time when US-China relations are at their lowest point in several years, if not decades. The principal reason for this is not his doing, as he was, by current standards, a rather mild-tempered representative of China abroad."
Having witnessed the popularity of some of Trump's hawkish and aggressive stance on America's biggest geopolitical rival, President Biden has pledged to continue the Trump trade war while seeking cooperation on other issues like climate change.
Qin Gang, China's vice-minister of foreign affairs under Foreign Minister Wang Yi, has been widely tipped to succeed Cui as Beijing's top emissary to the US. Having spent most of his career focused on Europe, Qin has no direct experience in dealing with the US. But given the control exercised from Beijing, the experience of the diplomat doesn't have much bearing on policy. But one expert source said the risks of more "rhetorical sparks" flying will likely be higher on the new ambassador.