(Bloomberg) -- President Xi Jinping failed to attend a business forum in South Africa where he was expected to deliver a speech defending China’s economy and its support for emerging markets, as fears mount that the Asian nation’s struggles could cause global turbulence.
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According to a public schedule, the Chinese leader was set to address the BRICS Business Forum on Tuesday, after meeting with South African President Cyril Ramaphosa earlier that day. Instead, delegates were greeted on stage by Commerce Minister Wang Wentao, who read the speech without giving an explanation for Xi’s absence.
“The Chinese economy has strong resilience, tremendous potential and great vitality. The fundamentals sustaining China’s long-term growth will remain unchanged,” according to the remarks read by Wang. “The giant ship of the Chinese economy will continue to cleave waves and sail ahead.”
Hours later, Xi attended a dinner with the leaders of South Africa, Brazil and India, and Russia’s foreign minister, who are in Johannesburg for the annual BRICS summit of emerging market powers.
Xi’s decision to skip delivering a bullish economic message in person comes as his nation face intense global scrutiny over its struggles with falling prices, a faltering property market and soaring local government debt. President Joe Biden has labeled those economic woes a “ticking time bomb” for the world, while Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen called them a “risk factor” for the US.
Read More: China’s Economy Is Weakening. Here’s Why That Matters: QuickTake
As China confronts those concerns, the South Africa summit will bring Xi into the orbit of leaders he hasn’t seen in months, including a bilateral meeting with India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi that is expected to take place on the sidelines of the summit.
“It’s clear that Xi Jinping places a higher priority on political issues, security issues, than he does on business and the economy,” said Drew Thompson, a former Pentagon official and businessman in China who is now a senior fellow at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy in Singapore. “So if he is in a position where he has to prioritize and skip one meeting, it would not surprise me that he favors the political and security topics over the economic ones.”
China is unlikely to clarify the reasons for Xi’s decision: The nation rarely answers questions on the movements of its leaders or clarifies their health status. When Qin Gang was removed from his post as foreign minister this year, no explanation was provided. That highlighted a lack of transparency from the Chinese government that has spooked investors in recent months, as data that was once publicly available becomes harder to find.
Xi’s speech would have been his first public remarks delivered abroad this year. Prior to South Africa, the Chinese leader had spent just two days overseas in 2023, when he visited Russia.
The trip to South Africa gives Xi an opportunity to court countries from the Global South, after a trilateral summit held by President Joe Biden with the leaders of South Korea and Japan last week left the Chinese leader looking increasingly isolated in his backyard.
During a state visit with Ramaphosa earlier Tuesday, Xi called on the two men to boost their combined influence on international affairs in the Global South. The leaders also pledged cooperation in electricity, new energy and scientific and technological innovation.
“We support substantive progress in the G20 and support South Africa employing a greater role,” Xi said at a joint press conference in Pretoria, adding that China will continue to encourage its companies to invest and operate in South Africa.
Beijing has been pushing to expand the five-nation group that also includes Brazil, Russia and India, with more than 20 nations reported to have applied to join, including Saudi Arabia, Indonesia and Egypt. While South Africa and Russia back the addition of new members, India is wary of the group becoming a mouthpiece for China, and Brazil is worried about alienating the West.
If forum delegates in South Africa were left wondering where Xi was, Chinese-language state media reports Wednesday made no mention of his absence, instead saying he delivered the speech without referencing Wang — although the official Xinhua News Agency’s English report noted the remarks were read on his behalf.
While Chinese politicians do sometimes read out messages from Xi at events — Vice Premier Ding Xuexiang delivered one at the China Development Forum in March, for example — normally that takes place when the Chinese leader isn’t physically in attendance.
The speech, part of which was written in the first person, said China was focused on achieving “high-quality development,” a phrase used to signal Beijing’s pivot from debt-fueled growth, touted the nation’s “super-size market” as a unique advantage, and stressed that barriers to foreign investment would ease.
The text also laid out China’s commitment to an “independent foreign policy of peace” and criticized “hegemonic” acts of other nations in a veiled swipe at the US, areas normally outside the purview of the commerce minister.
China’s Assistant Minister of Foreign Affairs Hua Chunying also neglected to mention Xi had enlisted a messenger when she posted a picture of the forum’s closing ceremony on X, the site previously known as Twitter, with a caption saying the Chinese leader had “delivered an address.”
“Xi said changes in our world, in our history and in our times are unfolding in ways like never before,” she wrote, next to the picture of the stage that only showed silhouettes.
--With assistance from S'thembile Cele, Larry Liebert and Colum Murphy.
(An earlier version of this story had an incorrect reference to President Xi’s title)
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