Chinese President Xi Jinping sparked speculation after a mysterious and sudden absence from delivering his speech at the BRICS Summit in South Africa on Tuesday. 

According to the summit schedule, Xi was expected to attend the forum and deliver his remarks alongside the other leaders. Instead, his speech was read out by his commerce minister Wang Wentao in which Xi called for the world to avoid sleepwalking “into the abyss of a new cold war.”

Rumors began to spiral after Chinese President Xi Jinping pulled out from delivering his speech at the BRICS Summit in South Africa on Tuesday.

In what sounded like a minor jab toward the United States, Wentao stated “Some country, obsessed with maintaining its hegemony, has gone out of its way to cripple the emerging markets and developing countries.” He added, Whoever is developing fast becomes its target of containment. Whoever is catching up, becomes its target of obstructions.”

Rumors swirled after Xi opted out of delivering his speech last-minute with no explanation, despite his attendance at a Summit dinner later that evening hosted by South Africa’s President – Cyril Ramaphosa. 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.”

Xi was the only BRICS leader who did not attend the forum. Russian President Vladimir Putin, who could not join the summit due to an international arrest warrant issued for his invasion in Ukraine, delivered remarks virtually in a prerecorded video. The 17-minute speech centered on the war in Ukraine and Russia’s relationship with the West, even though South African officials said East-West frictions should not be a focus in the first in-person BRICS Summit post-pandemic.

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.

During a news briefing on Wednesday, Wang Wenbin, another spokesperson for the ministry, read out a summary of Xi’s prepared speech carried widely by state media. When asked about Xi again, Wang said: “I’ve already answered the question. We are confident that this meeting of BRICS leaders will be fruitful.”

“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.

Experts predict Beijing is likely to never explain why Xi failed to show up.

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