Chinese Media Scapegoat Local Officials After Mayor Blames Beijing for Secrecy on Outbreak

Chinese President Xi Jinping (C) attends a bilateral meeting with Myanmar State Counselor Aung San Suu Kyi (not pictured) at the Presidential Palace in Naypyidaw on January 18, 2020. (Photo by Nyein CHAN NAING / POOL / AFP) (Photo by NYEIN CHAN NAING/POOL/AFP via Getty Images)
NYEIN CHAN NAING/POOL/AFP via Getty Images

China’s Communist Party propaganda outlets made clear on Monday that Beijing is intent to blame local officials in Wuhan for the growing viral epidemic consuming the country, calling it “regrettable” that municipal leaders let 5 million people leave the city during the outbreak.

State outlets also quoted alleged online sentiment calling a press conference by Wuhan Mayor Zhou Xianwang a “disaster” and remarks by National Health Commission (NHC) officials lamenting that some local governments “lack determination” in addressing the problem.

Zhou, in a press conference late Sunday, confessed that the government did indeed keep pivotal public health information a secret, but insisted that he had to because he needed approval from higher-ranking Communist Party officials to reveal the extent of the health threat.

Wuhan officials confirmed last week that a previously unidentified form of coronavirus had begun spreading in the metropolis, a city of 11 million whose greater metropolitan area is home to nearly 20 million. Chinese scientists only began sharing the virus’s genome sequence, which allows for identification, to global authorities last Monday. Evidence suggests that locals in Wuhan were aware of a respiratory illness spreading as early as a month ago but continued to hold risky public events – like a banquet attended by 130,000 people – and failed to inform people to use precautionary measures.

The coronavirus is believed to be a relative of the deadly virus responsible for Sudden Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS), which also originated in China and killed nearly 800 people in 2003. This virus causes similar respiratory symptoms and infection leads to pneumonia, which has proven deadly in dozens of patients.

As of Sunday, the World Health Organization (WHO) has documented 2,882 cases of the new coronavirus worldwide, most of them in China. Of those, 81 people, all of them in China, have died. Among the other countries documenting cases of the virus are Taiwan, the United States, Canada, Japan, South Korea, Thailand, and Australia.

The Global Times, often the Communist Party’s most belligerent English-language outlet, disparaged Zhou for revealing that 5 million people left the city in the days prior to his government announcing a total lockdown on travel. Currently, air and train travel into and out of Wuhan are canceled and authorities are keeping individuals from driving out. Those who left, both Zhou and the Global Times noted, likely did so not to avoid the virus, which the local government largely kept from them, but to go back to their places of origin for the Lunar New Year holiday, which occurred last week.

The Global Times nonetheless described Zhou’s statement as “shocking” and “disturbing.”

“It has to be pointed out that it is very regrettable that the city failed to take necessary emergency measures to prevent that many people from traveling across the country as this makes it especially difficult for the country to prevent and control the epidemic,” the newspaper protested. “The city should face the fact that the public is strongly dissatisfied with this.”

The newspaper urged locals not to “vent our anger on the people who have left Wuhan,” leaving open the possibility to instead vent anger at local officials.

An officer of Beijing’s National Health Commission appeared to also work to direct anger in the direction of those working in Wuhan during a press conference Monday.

He Qinghua, deputy director of the Bureau of Disease Prevention and Control, reportedly said that “grassroots Party organizations, residential communities and ordinary citizens must be mobilized to contain the spread of the virus.”

“At the moment, rural villages are a weak point for current coronavirus prevention, and there are still some local villages which are not working on the task in a timely manner,” the Global Times paraphrased He as saying. “The China health commission will hold a video and telephone meeting this afternoon to promote grassroots-level implementation of prevention measures.”

The remarks followed a meeting held by dictator Xi Jinping to address the crisis on Saturday in which he specifically demanded officials in Hubei province, where Wuhan is located, to “take more rigorous measures to prevent further spread of the virus and put all patients in centralized quarantine for treatment.”

Xi reportedly ordered the Party to create a delegation of senior “Central Committee” officials to micromanage the work of lower-ranking Party members in Hubei, according to the People’s Daily, the official newspaper of the Communist Party of China.

“The meeting demanded all-out efforts to treat infected patients, speed up the augmentation of medical personnel, and coordinate civilian and military medical resources,” the People’s Daily claimed. “The meeting also underscored timely, accurate and transparent release of information to address concerns from home and abroad.”

The latter has become a minor point of contention between local and national officials after Mayor Zhou blamed Beijing’s insistence on banning local officials from speaking of new developments without authorization for the secrecy surrounding the virus. While he did so in mild terms, dissenting views from local officials that paint the senior Communist Party management in a negative light are rare, particularly following multiple waves of Xi Jinping-led purges of allegedly “corrupt” officials within the Party who also happened not to be loyalists to Xi himself.

“On one hand, we did not reveal [information] in time; on the other, we did not use effective information to improve our work to a satisfactory level,” Zhou said during Sunday’s press conference, adding, “Regarding the untimely disclosure, [I] hope everyone can understand. [Coronavirus] is a contagious disease. Contagious diseases have relevant law and information needs to be disclosed according to law.”

“As [the head of] a local government, after I receive the information, [I] can only release it after being authorized,” he emphasized.

The Global Times notably omitted this part of the press conference from its report. Instead, it highlighted that Zhou offered to resign over mishandling the virus and calling for a city lockdown after millions of potential carriers had already left.

“Maybe Wuhan officials will be nailed by history with a bad reputation for doing so and locking up the virus inside the city … but as long as it helps contain the coronavirus, we are willing to take whatever responsibility … including the resignation of Wuhan Party Secretary Ma Guoqiang and myself,” Zhou said.

“Some Chinese netizens said Sunday night’s press briefing was a disaster, noting that the Wuhan mayor seemingly had put on his mask upside-down, then could not provide an exact number for medical supplies amid the public health crisis, thereby exposing significant holes in local governance,” the Global Times added, without providing any social media messages by local Chinese users as evidence.

Follow Frances Martel on Facebook and Twitter.

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