While any speculation about Xi’s health was, unsurprisingly, not evident on Chinese social media or in tightly controlled state publications, critics of Beijing quickly seized the opportunity.
“Whenever Xi stopped, the live feed from state broadcaster CCTV would turn the camera to guests sitting beyond the main table, but it could still capture the sounds of Xi’s coughing and drinking,” the newspaper said.
Prior to his Shenzhen trip, which is partly a victory lap to show how much China has recovered from the coronavirus, Xi had been largely walled off from any potential infection vectors, in stark contrast to other world leaders, several of whom have come down with the virus, such as United States President Donald Trump and British Prime Minister Boris Johnson.
Despite all that, seeing Xi cough — with even the suggestion that the leader of the world’s second-largest economy could, like the leaders of the first and sixth, be infected — did lead to some raised eyebrows Thursday.
Xi is also not the first figure to cough without a mask and be greeted by abject horror in Asia at the moment. Face masks are nearly universal in most of East Asia — legally mandated in some areas — and anyone who has to clear their throat on public transport will quickly find their surroundings far more spacious than before.
More likely than not, Xi’s throat was just dry. Were he to have coughed in a speech last year, no one would have noticed.
But the coronavirus pandemic has shaped everything, including how we react to normal bodily functions.