It seems Chinese President Xi Jinping has mustered up enough courage for a long-overdue inspection tour of Wuhan, the central Chinese megacity of more than 10 million that was ground zero of a virus that has infected 49,797 and killed 2,328 there as of Friday.
Sources in Beijing have revealed that Xi and his aides feel the time and conditions are finally right for them to head for the virus-stricken city to demonstrate the top leader’s bounden commitment to serve the people. It has been more than two months since the novel coronavirus, aka Covid-19, started to spread among people in the lead-up to the Chinese New Year.
After a precarious February when the rampaging respiratory pathogen made tens of thousands ill and panicked residents in Wuhan and throughout the rest of Hubei province, infection rates in the province are now showing signs of slowing down, if China’s official statistics are to be believed.
Wuhan added only 126 fresh cases on Friday, a huge drop from when the daily tally of new infections broke into four digits. There were no new infections reported in other parts of Hubei province.
The itinerary for Xi’s trip to Wuhan, which is likely to take place within a week, will include visits to several hospitals admitting the infected, in particular the Leishenshan and Huoshenshan Hospitals. These hospitals have a total of 2,400 beds in prefabricated wards that were built from scratch within a week for centralized treatment and medical observation of patients with acute symptoms.
Xi will also visit Wuhan’s local communities and meet residents still banned from going outside after the city was sealed off on January 23. It has been reported that all “candidates,” mostly civil servants, who may meet Xi in their homes have been carefully vetted by local officials to ensure Xi’s absolute safety and the zero-risk of infection.
Hong Kong’s Ming Pao daily also noted that Xi could also meet scientists at the Wuhan Institute of Virology, a lab affiliated with the Chinese Academy of Sciences which is at the center of swirling rumors that a leakage could have enabled the highly infectious virus to infect people in the largest urban center in central China.
Under a veneer of acquiesce, exasperation over Xi’s incapability to lead at a testing time has been spreading among cadres and intellectuals. The domineering leader who purged foes and amassed virtually all power since taking office was nowhere to be seen for weeks.
Xi chose to hide in his well-protected office suite most of the time as the pandemic raged across the nation, except for two visits to hospitals and labs in Beijing and a few meetings with senior cadres inside the well-sterilized halls in Zhongnanhai.
“Can’t imagine if there is a similar outbreak in Manchester, Boris Johnson would wait for two months before visiting people in the city,” read one post on Weibo, a Twitter-like platform. “Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison was crucified for failing to visit the country’s wildfire sites in the first place, then what Chinese people, especially those in Wuhan, should make of Xi and his cowardice?” asked another that was swiftly pulled by censors.
Xi’s spin doctors have rushed to project an image of care for the top leader, making public a speech by Xi in early January, in which he purportedly requested more stringent containment measures, as proof of his foresight and early instructions to curb the viral spread.
Yet the fact is that Chinese state media did not start reporting the disease and Xi’s directives until the end of that month. Questions are being asked if Xi was fed grossly distorted reports about the situation in Wuhan between December and early January that lulled him into a false sense of control, or did he fail to attach significance to the unfolding crisis and act on the advice of his subordinates.
What has further put Xi in an unflattering light is the fact that Premier Li Keqiang, who has been sidelined by Xi’s strongman rule, flew into the epicenter at the end of January to oversee the local government’s response to the outbreak, and Li’s subordinate, Deputy Premier Sun Chunlan, has been detailed to the city since January 22.
Also, people’s mounting frustration turned into a rare, open display of discontent when Sun inspected residential quarters in Wuhan on Thursday, as residents mandated to stay indoors booed her visit and chanted words like “fake reports,” “no food” etc. Sun was reportedly heckled when visiting a family, as neighbors gave vent to their anger.
The Economic Daily reported that local cadres scrambled to put on a show and offered to deliver food to residents when they heard Sun was coming, and were thus “reprimanded” by the deputy premier for their clumsy efforts to restore a resemblance of normality while people under home quarantine were struggling to put food on their tables.