China’s leader, Xi Jinping, unexpectedly skipped a scheduled speech at a key multilateral business forum in South Africa on Tuesday.
Xi arrived in Johannesburg for the Brics summit on Monday evening on what is only his second international trip this year, after visiting Moscow in March. He was met on the airport tarmac by South African president Cyril Ramaphosa.
According to the summit schedule, Xi was expected to attend the forum and deliver remarks alongside other leaders on Tuesday. But instead his speech was read out by his commerce minister, Wang Wentao.
Xi later attended the summit dinner, but no reason was given for missing the speech. It appeared to be a last-minute decision, as state media articles and social media posts from China’s foreign ministry spokesperson were published as though he had delivered it himself.
Some China watchers speculated whether something was “amiss” or if Xi was temporarily ill, but an explanation is unlikely to be given.
Bill Bishop, author of Sinocism, a popular newsletter about Chinese affairs, noted there had already been a long period this month without any public appearances by Xi, which seemed “a bit strange”.
“This last-minute decision to skip the business forum looks even stranger. So in the absence of any useful information from the PRC [People’s Republic of China] system rumours will fly,” he said.
The China Global South Project noted this was the second unexplained absence by a Chinese official after former foreign minister Qin Gang – who has not been seen in public for months – also missed last month’s foreign ministers Brics meeting.
“To say [Xi’s absence] is extraordinary is an understatement as Chinese leaders never miss highly choreographed events like this,” it said.
The speech, delivered by Wang, made thinly veiled attacks on the US, describing an unnamed country as “obsessed with maintaining hegemony, [and] has gone out of its way to cripple the emerging markets and developing countries”.
“Whoever develops first becomes their target of containment. Whoever is catching up becomes its target of obstruction,” Wang said on behalf of Xi.
The Brics countries – Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa – represent about 40% of the world’s population and a quarter of global GDP. Leaders of all member nations except Vladimir Putin attended in person as he currently faces an arrest warrant for war crimes issued by the international criminal court.
The summit was attended by representatives of dozens of other countries, as the main members consider expanding its membership.
Some members like China are seeking to build up Brics as a counterweight to western blocs like the G7 or G20, although there is division within the group. On Tuesday Brazil’s president, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, said it wasn’t the group’s aim to compete with western institutions. India’s leadership, which has an often fractious relationship with China, is also hesitant over empowering Beijing through Brics.