Chinese leader Xi Jinping on Tuesday unexpectedly skipped a business forum of the BRICS economic group in South Africa, sending his commerce minister instead to deliver a fiery speech in his name that decried US hegemony.
Xi, who arrived in Johannesburg on Monday for the annual BRICS summit of major emerging economies, was scheduled to deliver a speech at its business forum on Tuesday alongside leaders from India, Brazil and South Africa.
But the Chinese leader failed to show up at the event, with no official announcement or explanation from Beijing.
Instead, his prepared statement – peppered with thinly-veiled swipes at the United States that have become a fixture of Xi’s international speeches – was delivered by Chinese Commerce Minister Wang Wentao.
In the statement, Xi called for the world to avoid sleepwalking “into the abyss of a new cold war.”
Without directly mentioning the US, the statement said “some country, obsessed with maintaining its hegemony, has gone out of its way to cripple the emerging markets, and developing countries.”
“Whoever is developing fast, becomes its target of containment. Whoever is catching up, becomes its target of obstruction. But this is futile,” it added.
Xi was the only BRICS leader who did not attend the forum. Even Russian President Vladimir Putin, who could not join the summit in person due to an international arrest warrant for his brutal invasion of Ukraine, delivered remarks virtually.
After skipping the forum, Xi later attended a dinner hosted by Ramaphosa, along with the leaders of Brazil and India, and Russia’s foreign minister.
Xi’s surprise absence from the forum, noted by journalists at the event, raised questions among long-term observers of Chinese foreign policy.
“It’s extremely unusual for a Chinese leader to show up in a country hosting a multilateral meeting – especially one that China is deeply invested in, like BRICS – and fail to show up at the opening event,” said Bonnie Glaser, managing director of the German Marshall Fund’s Indo-Pacific program.
Brian Hart, a fellow with the China Power Project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said Xi’s absence is “highly unusual,” adding that Chinese leaders rarely go off script at high-profile events like this.
“It seems that something pulled Xi away from the meeting. It could have been a health incident or perhaps a pressing matter that required his attention,” he said. “It is also possible Xi skipped the event for some other reason – perhaps in response to developments at the summit.”
Earlier Tuesday, Xi met with Ramaphosa as part of his state visit to South Africa before later joining his host and the other visiting dignitaries for dinner.
“The fact that Xi skipped his speech at this meeting, but showed up to other engagements before and after this one, suggests there was something acute that pulled him away during this window. But at this point we just don’t know the reason,” Hart added.
Chinese state media and diplomats have not provided any explanation for Xi’s no-show. Instead, they “have even gone so far as to seemingly try to cover up Xi’s absence,” Hart said.
A report on the event by state news agency Xinhua made no mention of Xi’s absence – or the fact that his speech was delivered by Wang, the commerce minister.
Hua Chunying, a spokesperson for the Chinese Foreign Ministry, tweeted hours after the event that “Xi delivered an address at the closing ceremony of the BRICS Business Forum 2023,” along with a picture showing the crowded conference room.
At a regular news briefing Wednesday, Wang Wenbin, another spokesperson for the ministry, sidestepped a question about Xi’s absence at the BRICS business forum. Instead, Wang read out a summary of Xi’s prepared speech carried widely by state media.
When another reporter asked about Xi again, Wang said: “I’ve already answered the question. We are confident that this meeting of BRICS leaders will be fruitful.”
Experts say Beijing will likely never explain why Xi failed to show up.
“The (Chinese Communist Party) feels no obligation to provide explanations about why its foreign minister was replaced or its top leader was a no show at the BRICS Business Forum. Anything can be a state secret,” said Glaser with the German Marshall Fund.
Last month, China abruptly removed Qin Gang as the country’s foreign minister after he had vanished from public view for weeks. No explanation was given for the dramatic move, which saw Qin suddenly replaced by his predecessor Wang Yi. Qin has not been heard from in public since.
That shake-up actually had an impact on the ongoing BRICS summit, noted Hart at the CSIS. Qin would have attended preparatory BRICS meetings this summer, but during his disappearance, his deputy was sent in his stead.
“Beijing’s lack of transparency is unsurprising. When it comes to personnel matters or sensitive issues, Chinese officials tightly lock down the flow of information,” Hart said.
“Abnormalities like Xi’s disappearance are yet another reminder that Beijing can be a black box.”