Chinese leader Xi Jinping unexpectedly skipped a business forum organized by the BRICS economic group in South Africa. Instead, his commerce minister delivered a strong speech in Xi’s name that criticized US dominance.
Xi, who had arrived in Johannesburg on Monday for the annual BRICS summit involving major emerging economies, was slated to give a speech at the business forum on Tuesday afternoon, alongside leaders from India, Brazil, and South Africa.
However, Xi did not attend the event, and there was no official announcement or explanation from Beijing. Instead, his prepared statement, containing subtle jabs at the United States as has become common in Xi’s international speeches, was read by Chinese Commerce Minister Wang Wentao.
In the statement, Xi urged the world to avoid sleepwalking “into the abyss of a new cold war.” Without directly naming the US, the statement accused “some country obsessed with maintaining its hegemony” of deliberately hindering emerging markets and developing nations.
Xi was the sole BRICS leader absent from the business forum. Even Russian President Vladimir Putin, unable to attend the summit in person due to an international arrest warrant related to his involvement in Ukraine, delivered remarks virtually.
Xi’s unexpected absence, noted by journalists present, puzzled long-term observers of Chinese foreign policy. Bonnie Glaser, managing director of the German Marshall Fund’s Indo-Pacific program, stated that it was highly unusual for a Chinese leader to miss the opening event of a multilateral meeting hosted by a country deeply invested in the event.
Brian Hart, a fellow with the China Power Project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, noted that Xi’s absence was uncommon, as Chinese leaders rarely deviate from scripts at high-profile events. He speculated that something significant must have caused Xi’s absence, possibly a health issue or pressing matter related to summit developments.
Before the event, Xi met with South African President Cyril Ramaphosa as part of his state visit. In the evening, he attended a dinner with leaders from Brazil, India, and Russia’s foreign minister.
While Chinese state media and diplomats did not offer an explanation for Xi’s absence, they seemed to attempt to downplay it, according to Hart. A report by state news agency Xinhua omitted mention of Xi’s absence or Wang delivering the speech.
Hua Chunying, a spokesperson for the Chinese Foreign Ministry, tweeted that Xi had addressed the closing ceremony of the BRICS Business Forum 2023, accompanied by a photo of the crowded conference room.
During a regular news briefing the next day, another ministry spokesperson, Wang Wenbin, evaded a question about Xi’s absence. Instead, he summarized Xi’s prepared speech, as widely covered by state media. When asked again about Xi, he reiterated confidence in the BRICS leaders’ meeting being productive.
Experts believe that Beijing is unlikely to explain Xi’s absence, as the Chinese Communist Party is not obligated to provide such explanations. Glaser from the German Marshall Fund noted that anything could be treated as a state secret. This lack of transparency is in line with China’s tendency to tightly control information flow, particularly in sensitive matters.
Hart emphasized that Xi’s disappearance was an example of Beijing’s opacity, serving as a reminder that the Chinese government can be an enigma when it comes to personnel issues or sensitive topics.