Rumors swirl over why Xi skipped his BRICS speech

Updated Aug 23, 2023, 10:49am EDT
Karina Tsui/

Chinese leader Xi Jinping skipped the BRICS business forum in Johannesburg on Tuesday — an event where he was expected to deliver a speech defending China’s economy.

Xi later reappeared at a dinner with the leaders of the bloc, with no explanation for his absence, prompting widespead speculation.

Xi set the tone for 2023 during the National People’s Congress last year — prioritizing political and national security issues over the economy — which now faces a concerning slump. It doesn’t come as a surprise that Xi would skip the BRICS business forum if he “favors the political and security topics1 over the economic ones,” commented China expert Drew Thompson.

But Xi’s absence from the event was likely a last minute decision. Following the planned speech — which was delivered instead by Commerce Minister Wang Wentao — the Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson posted on X that Xi had delivered the remarks2 at the business forum — which journalists and observers interpreted as odd and likely an embarrassing mistake.

Chinese leaders rarely go off script3 at high-profile events, Brian Hart a fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies told CNN, suggesting that Xi could have been pulled away because of a health incident or a “pressing matter that required his attention.” Hart also speculated that the leader may have skipped the event due to “developments at the summit.” Before the business forum, Xi had met with South African President Cyril Ramaphosa to discuss ways to deepen bilateral cooperation between the two countries.