China mum on Xi Jinping's absence from BRICS business forum

Xi's absence sparks speculation about his health, or that he needs to confront crisis back home
By Chen Zifei for RFA Mandarin
China mum on Xi Jinping's absence from BRICS business forum Leaders from the BRICS group of emerging economies arrive at the start of a three-day summit in Johannesburg, South Africa, Tuesday, Aug. 22, 2023. On the stage, from left, are Brazilian President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, South African President Cyril Ramaphosa, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and China Minister of Commerce Wang Wentao. China’s President Xi Jinping was absent.
Credit: Jerome Delay/AP

China's foreign ministry declined to comment Wednesday after multiple media reports said President Xi Jinping stayed away from a global business summit in South Africa, sending his commerce minister instead to read out his keynote speech attacking U.S. global dominance.

Britain's Sky News, The Guardian and Hong Kong's English-language South China Morning Post all reported Xi as absent from Tuesday's session of the BRICS Business Forum 2023 in Johannesburg.

According to the summit schedule, Xi was expected to attend the forum and deliver remarks alongside other leaders on Tuesday, according to The Guardian, while the South China Morning Post said he had "failed to show up" at the forum.

The forum groups Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa – an expanding club of emerging economies that China hopes will challenge the U.S.-led economic order.

BRICS nations account for more than 40 percent of the world’s population, and in March, they surpassed the G-7 nations in terms of economic output, and looks set to expand, with around 23 nations eager to join, including Algeria, Egypt, Ethiopia, and Senegal. 

While a foreign ministry spokesman declined to comment when asked face-to-face by reporters, his colleague appeared to claim Xi had delivered his speech in person, according to her account on X, formerly Twitter.

"President Xi Jinping delivered an address at the closing ceremony of the #BRICS Business Forum 2023," spokeswoman Hua Chunying's official account said on Wednesday.

"President Xi said changes in the world, in our times and in history are unfolding in ways like never before, bringing human society to a critical juncture."

China's Minister of Commerce Wang Wentao delivers Xi Jinping’s speech at the Business Forum at the 2023 BRICS Summit in Johannesburg, South Africa, on Tuesday, Aug. 22, 2023. Credit: Gianluigi Guercia/AFP

But replies under her tweet took issue with the claim.

"Xi Jinping wasn’t there making a speech. His foreign minister [sic] delivered it for him," @AnthonyTNguyen3 replied to Hua's tweet, while @DJ_PaulTUK added: "No he didn't. He made no speech of any kind. #fakenews"

"But he (Xi Jinping) wasn't there,” objected @GalaxisElnoeke. “Someone else read the speech.”

Conspicuously absent

Xi was one of the first leaders to touch down in South Africa for the BRICS Business Forum, to be met at the airport by South African president Cyril Ramaphosa on Monday.

His current trip is only his second international trip this year, after visiting Moscow in March. 

But he was conspicuously absent from the dais on Tuesday, sparking speculation that he might be unwell.

Xi's closing speech was given top billing by Chinese state media, who printed the text of the address in full, but who also failed to mention that Xi hadn't delivered it in person.

Asked at a regular news briefing in Beijing on Wednesday why Xi hadn't attended the closing session, foreign ministry spokesman Wang Wenbin read out some quotes from Xi's speech.

Asked for further details, Wang said, "I have already answered your question."

South African President Cyril Ramaphosa interacts with Chinese President Xi Jinping during Xi’s visit to the Union Buildings in Pretoria on Tuesday, Aug. 22, 2023. Credit: Phil Magakoe/AFP

In a thinly-veiled reference to the United States, Xi's speech hit out at a "country, obsessed with maintaining its hegemony" that has "gone out of its way to cripple [emerging economies]."

"Developing countries mostly emerged from the historical mire of colonialism. We have gone through untold hardships, made huge sacrifices, gained national independence, and constantly explored a development path that suits our own national conditions," the speech said.

"However, some countries are not reconciled to losing their hegemony, and wantonly contain and suppress emerging market countries and developing countries," it said.

More important matters to deal with?

In an article titled "Where is Xi Jinping?" the Indian news site Wion commented that "it was surprising that Xi did not turn up for the event."

"So far, no reason has been provided for Xi’s absence, and the stoic silence from the officials has left much room for speculation," the report said.

Independent political scholar Chen Daoyin said speculation ranged from Xi's state of health, to concerns that he could have had more urgent matters to deal with.

"My guess is that he had more important matters to deal with than the speech to this forum, which had to be dealt with by him in person, so he couldn't do it," Chen said, citing Taiwanese media reports that a Chinese submarine had sunk.

"If that were true, it would be a very serious incident, because he is the chairman of the Central Military Commission," he said.

From left: Brazil's President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, China's President Xi Jinping, South African President Cyril Ramaphosa, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Russia's Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov raise their arms as they pose for a group photograph, at the BRICS Summit in Johannesburg on Wednesday, Aug. 23, 2023. Credit: Alet Pretorius/Pool/AFP

Soong Kuo-cheng, a researcher in international relations at Taiwan's National Chengchi University said it was unusual, and natural to suppose that something was going on behind the scenes, given the Chinese government's tendency to prefer highly choreographed events like the BRICS forum.

"In the closed-door political world of the Chinese Communist Party, anything out of the ordinary means that something else is going on," Soong said.

"[This is something that] once announced, will have an impact on the prestige of the party, country, and an international political impact," he said. "It could be something they can't control, and could involve the health status of sensitive political figures."

"Their usual approach is, don't answer, don't comment, don't explain."

Nosmot Gbadamosi wrote in Foreign Policy’s weekly Africa Brief on Wednesday that China is keen to see rapid expansion of the group, as it would solidify Beijing’s sphere of influence.

"Many African leaders view the dollar’s dominance over the global financial system as impeding their nations’ economic growth,” she wrote, “particularly after U.S. interest rate hikes and Russia’s invasion of Ukraine strengthened the dollar against almost all major currencies and raised the cost of importing goods priced in dollars.”

Translated with additional reporting by Luisetta Mudie. Edited by Malcolm Foster.


Add your comment by filling out the form below in plain text. Comments are approved by a moderator and can be edited in accordance with RFAs Terms of Use. Comments will not appear in real time. RFA is not responsible for the content of the postings. Please, be respectful of others' point of view and stick to the facts.