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Xi's unexplained absence from key BRICS speech triggers speculation

BRICS nations agree to expand their group
Russia, China strengthen economic ties with developing nations 04:12

China's President Xi Jinping missed a highly-anticipated speech at the BRICS global summit in South Africa on Tuesday, instead sending his commerce minister to deliver hostile remarks clearly directed toward the U.S. 

The unexplained absence has triggered rumor and speculation. Such behavior at choreographed events are not part of Beijing's political playbook for high-level officials — let alone for the president himself.

Chinese state media and China's foreign ministry also appeared to have been caught off guard. News articles and social media posts from official channels were written as if Xi had made the speech, implying his absence was last-minute.

The speech was ultimately delivered by Commerce Minister Wang Wentao, with remarks including a fiery pushback against the United States.

"Should we embrace prosperity, openness and inclusiveness, or allow hegemonic and bullying acts to throw us into depression?" he said. Beijing traditionally uses the word "hegemon" when making veiled references to Washington.

"But some country, obsessed with maintaining its hegemony, has gone out of its way to cripple the EMDCs [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, as I have said more than once that blowing out others' lamp will not bring light to oneself."

The speech that Xi did not give also called for a faster expansion of the bloc — a call that could easily be interpreted as an attempt to push back against a U.S.-dominated world order. After Beijing dropped its "zero-COVID" policy early this year, China's leaders have been eager to return to the world stage both politically and economically. The county's economic growth is flagging and a hoped-for rebound post-COVID has not materialized. This month, Beijing said it would stop publishing youth unemployment numbers — another disappearance which implies unwelcome facts.

As for Xi, any explanation for his temporary disappearance is highly unlikely. Some have speculated that he may have fallen ill and quickly recovered. He later returned to the public eye and joined a dinner, keeping the reason for his earlier absence a secret.

The BRICS economic bloc is comprised of Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa. The five countries make up roughly 25% of global GDP and nearly 40% of the world's population.

Russia's Vladimir Putin did not attend in person because of an international criminal court arrest warrant out for him over the alleged abduction of children from Ukraine.

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