Chinese President Xi Jinping has finally emerged from 13 days of seclusion. During his time away from the public’s gaze, the spread of the novel coronavirus has put hospitals in locked-down cities under massive strain.
On Sunday afternoon, Xi convened members of the Communist Party’s Politburo, the party’s high-powered decision-making caucus, to sketch out policy initiatives to combat the epidemic and shore up the slackening economy.
He also presided over a subsequent teleconference, along with the other six standing members of the Politburo – Premier Li Keqiang and heads of the parliament and top political advisory body – attended by senior officials detailed to all provinces, municipalities, autonomous regions and the military. He talked up the overarching role of the party in these testing times, in front of an audience that included more than 170,000 cadres in charge of all cities and counties throughout the country, according to some attendees on Monday.
Xi and the core members of his coterie did not wear masks during the sit-down, while others sitting in the same hall at a respectful distance jotting down key points of the top leader’s instructions were all masked.
Before the hours-long plenum attended by his many subordinates, Xi had not been seen since he toured hospitals and community centers in Beijing on February 10, fueling seething public anger at his decision to take refuge in his office suite inside Zhongnanhai during the unfolding crisis, as well as suspicion that he himself could have contracted the deadly respiratory pathogen and must be quarantined.
Addressing the meeting in a grim tone, Xi described the public health challenge facing the nation as the worst epidemic to hit the communist republic since its founding, adding that never before had the nation’s public health system and its manpower been so stretched. His words are seen as an official admission that the still-raging viral outbreak, officially known as Covid-19, has wrought more havoc than the SARS crisis of 2003.
It is necessary to learn from “obvious shortcomings exposed” during the government’s response, Xi admitted in a rare acknowledgement of failure by a Chinese leader.
In comments reported by the state broadcaster China Central Television, Xi said the epidemic “has the fastest transmission, widest range of infection and has been the most difficult to prevent and control.”
He laid bare the still treacherous battle in the pneumonic plague ground zero of Wuhan, the provincial capital of Hubei, and throughout the rest of the province, where 398 new cases had been reported as of Monday morning, bringing the total count to 64,287. Beijing also got a special mention in Xi’s long and rambling speech about fighting the disease, as he ordered more stringent measures to prevent the virus from creeping further into the city.
Beijing on Monday added 197 new cases to its total tally of 399, with four deaths thus far. Rumor has it that Beijing’s downtown Xicheng district, where Zhongnanhai is situated, is on the verge of a community outbreak after many officials were taken ill.
Another moot point is how to contain the viral spread without further debilitating the already faltering economy, which is starting to display symptoms of a looming recession, at lease in some regions and sectors that hinge on retail and consumption.
To make up for the lost GDP and fiscal revenue due to prolonged shutdowns, Xi has ordered lower risk regions, mostly costal provinces, to ramp up efforts to fend off imported cases while helping businesses to resume operating.
In response to Xi’s latest edict, Guangdong, China’s largest provincial economy with an annual GDP on a par with that of Australia and South Korea, has lowered its public health response mobilization from tier one to two. This means it is scrapping temperature screening at entry points to cities and relaxing bans on recruiting non-local migrant workers, despite the fact that Guangdong has the largest cluster of confirmed cases outside of Hubei.
Local governments in the industrialized provinces of Guangdong and Zhejiang are also offering free flights and marshaling special trains for migrant workers to return to work to help factories tackle the manpower crunch. Cash awards and social welfare contribution subsidies are on offer for companies and employment agents there to woo more people from inland provinces other than Hubei, according to Xinhua.
Back in Wuhan, authorities on Monday backtracked on a previous decision that would have allowed some non-locals to be given a clean slate by doctors so they could leave the epidemic epicenter, a city of more than 10 million that has been under outright lockdown since the end of January to contain a worsening spillover.
The city’s government said the about-face was a blunder, as the previous announcement had been made “without the consent” of the local leadership and thus was not valid.
“Wuhan resolutely implements the spirit of General Secretary Xi Jinping’s important instructions on ‘preventing leaks [of the virus]’ … strictly manages the passages leaving from Wuhan, strictly controls personnel, and strictly prevents the epidemic from going out,” said a statement from the city’s government.
The party chiefs in Hubei and Wuhan were sacked earlier this month, along with the region’s top health officials.
Meanwhile, an expert panel dispatched by the World Health Organization is now in Wuhan to delve into the city’s communities to gauge the effectiveness of the Chinese government’s response to the crisis for follow-up recommendations.
The WHO has been on the receiving end of sharp jabs over its handling of the incident, as the United Nations body is seen as overly accommodating towards Beijing’s perceived underreporting and inadequate disclosure of the plight of patients and doctors in Wuhan.