Xi ousts pair of officials amid outrage over virus response
BEIJING — President Xi Jinping summarily ousted two top Communist Party officials from the province at the center of the coronavirus epidemic Thursday, exacting political punishment for the regional government’s handling of a crisis that seemed far from under control.
The reshuffling of the party leadership in the province, Hubei, and its capital, Wuhan, reflected an effort by Xi to contain not only the political and economic damage of the epidemic but also any simmering public anger among millions of people locked down now for more than three weeks.
The Communist Party replaced both officials with protégés of Xi who have extensive backgrounds in public security.
The moves, announced in terse statements in state news media, came as the number of deaths and infections skyrocketed by the highest amounts in any day. The rise, in part, reflected changes in the way infections in Hubei are counted, but the latest figures confirmed warnings that the true scale of the epidemic remains muddled.
The death toll from the virus, known officially as COVID-19, reached 1,367 Thursday, up 254 from a day earlier, and the number of confirmed cases jumped to 59,804, up 15,152.
“The personnel changes can be spun as Beijing finally taking decisive action and beginning the process of sheeting home responsibility for the crisis,” said Richard McGregor, a senior fellow at the Lowy Institute in Sydney, using a nautical idiom meaning to fix blame, “but they also reek a little of panic.”
Only the day before, Xi presided over a third emergency session of the country’s top political body, the Politburo Standing Committee, and declared that the government’s efforts were beginning to have “positive effects.”
“All regions and departments performed their duties actively and conscientiously,” Xi said, once again referring to the fight against the epidemic as a “people’s war.”
Xi’s reassuring remarks made the dismissals, like the rise in new cases and deaths, even more of a surprise.
In a separate move that underscored similar concerns, the government’s highest body, the State Council, announced that it had appointed another Xi protégé to take over the national office overseeing Hong Kong, which has been roiled by protests since last summer and by the coronavirus now.
At Wednesday’s meeting of the Politburo Standing Committee, Xi urged officials to do everything possible to improve the care of those sickened in Hubei. At the same time, he urged them to make sure that business returned to normal and that the government met its economic development goals for the year, according to an official summary of the meeting by Xinhua, the staterun news agency.
Meanwhile, U.S. officials Thursday announced the country’s 15th confirmed case of the new coronavirus — an evacuee from China who had been under quarantine in Texas.
The patient, who had been flown to Lackland Air Force Base in San Antonio last week, was reported in stable condition. The infect i on was confirmed Wednesday night, making the person the first coronavirus patient in Texas.
A doctor checks the condition of a patient at Jinyintan Hospital in Wuhan, China.