Chinese president Xi Jinping's high-profile trip to the southern coastal city of Shenzhen this week was overshadowed by a coughing fit during a speech broadcast nationwide, raising concerns about his health in a country where the coronavirus pandemic originated but is largely under control.
Xi was in Shenzhen, a strategic tech hub that links Hong Kong to mainland China, to lay out ambitious plans to reform the city and turn it into a world-class trade and finance hub to rival embattled Hong Kong.
But all attention was diverted to the 67-year-old’s repeated coughing. Chinese state broadcaster CCTV panned cameras away from Xi on stage, according to reports, but audio still captured sounds of the president gulping down water and coughing.
Coughing is a possible symptom of the virus known as COVID-19 and with reports of new cases re-emerging in Chinese cities like eastern Qingdao, speculation about Xi's health was rife on the Chinese internet.
"Mike Pence had his fly. Xi Jinping has his cough - what a way to distract viewers from an important speech," said one user on the microblogging site Sina Weibo, referring to the awkward incident when a fly landed on the U.S. vice-president's head during a live debate with Kamala Harris, who is running with Democratic nominee Joe Biden.
Videos of Xi's coughing fit seem to have been removed from the popular state-censored Weibo site - but comments left by netizens on threads and posts related to the Qingdao outbreak showed that citizens were well aware of what happened to Xi.
"A little coughing normally wouldn't do any harm and Xi's throat might have been dry which was why he reached out for a glass of water - but with Golden Week over and infection cases returning, I think we have to realize that not even the most powerful man in China is immune or done with COVID," wrote a local university professor in a comment on a post that drew hundreds of likes.
After nine months of border closures, lockdowns and mass testing, China's annual Golden Week holiday kicked off on Oct. 1 and saw an estimated 425 million people travelling around the country in a bid to revive domestic tourism. But infections have resurfaced as authorities rushed to quash an outbreak in Qingdao, screening close to 10 million people after 13 new coronavirus cases were reported.