Coronavirus pandemic
Get more with myNEWS
A personalised news feed of stories that matter to you
Learn more
Shanghai mayor Ying Yong, who has taken over from Jiang Chaoliang as Hubei’s Communist Party chief. Photo: Reuters

Coronavirus: Beijing purges Communist Party heads in Hubei over ‘botched’ outbreak response in provincial capital of Wuhan

  • Provincial party secretary is highest-ranking political casualty so far of botched virus response
  • Former Shanghai mayor and close ally of President Xi Jinping takes his place
Beijing’s purge of officials in Hubei province picked up pace with the removal of the top Communist Party leaders in the region as the central government responded to public anger over what is seen as the botched handling of the deadly coronavirus outbreak.
China’s official Xinhua news agency reported that Hubei party secretary Jiang Chaoliang had been replaced by Shanghai mayor Ying Yong, 61, a close ally of Chinese President Xi Jinping.

The Communist Party leader of the city of Wuhan, Ma Guoqiang, 56, also lost his job, Xinhua said. He will be replaced by Wang Zhonglin, 57, the party secretary of the city of Jinan, in the eastern province of Shandong.

Another Beijing heavyweight, Chen Yixin, was flown into Hubei last week. He is chief of the party’s top law enforcement body – the Central Political and Legal Affairs Commission – and is now in charge of handling the outbreak. The virus is believed to have originated from a live animal and seafood market in Wuhan, Hubei’s capital city.

News of the reshuffle coincided with a State Council meeting on Thursday in which it was announced the draconian control measures currently in place in Wuhan – the epicentre of the outbreak – would be expanded to other Hubei cities including Huanggang and Xiaogan.

“Hubei province and Wuhan must further strengthened management and control over exits from the areas … to put a stop to the spread [of the disease],” state broadcaster CCTV quoted a read out of the meeting as saying.

Jiang, 61, is the highest-ranking political casualty so far in the outbreak, which has killed more than 1,300 people in mainland China, the vast majority in Hubei and its capital, Wuhan. As details have trickled out on how local officials mismanaged the outbreak, public anger has swelled on social media.

Academics also signed a public petition to demand free speech after the police punished doctors who raised the early alarm about the disease.

The new appointments could help mend ties with the public, but it remained to be seen whether the newcomers could end the crisis soon, said Qin Qianhong, a law professor at Wuhan University.

“They could help calm public anger over the incompetence of local officials, but there’s too much still unknown with the virus and how bad the situation really is,” Qin said.

“They also need to take into account the fatigue and stress their colleagues have been under in the past month. Most of those people might not have made any mistakes but were simply caught in the storm.”

WHO head again praises China and Xi Jinping on response to outbreak

Qin also said that all three officials sent to Hubei shared a background in security and law enforcement.

New Hubei party chief Ying has a law degree from China University of Political Science and Law, and held a series of senior party posts in Zhejiang province, neighbouring Shanghai, between 2003 and 2007.

His time there overlapped with that of Xi, who served as Zhejiang party chief for five years until 2007, and was when the two men formed their close ties.

Wang, the incoming Wuhan party chief, also has a background in law. The Shandong native majored in criminal law while studying at the East China University of Political Science and Law in the 1980s. He has spent most of his career in Shandong, steadily rising through the party ranks.

“I think it’s a coincidence that they all share similar backgrounds,” he said. “But we can almost expect lots of legal petitions and even risks of protests in the aftermath [of the outbreak], and their legal backgrounds

could help lower those risks.”

“Sending Ying Yong and Wang Zhonglin to Hubei shows the central government is determined to fix Hubei and give people an answer. The cadres there have been really disappointing,” said a person familiar with the developments in the province who was not authorised to speak publicly on the matter.

“The outbreak cost the party dearly. Those who are responsible will be held accountable.”

US announces 15th coronavirus case, as evacuee tests positive in Texas

The decisions to remove senior Communist Party officials echoes what happened in China 17 years ago during the severe acute respiratory syndrome (Sars) outbreak.

The health minister and the mayor of Beijing were both fired in April 2003 amid allegations of a cover-up in reporting the extent of the disease.

The axing of the Hubei Communist Party heads also follows the dismissal of the top two health officials in the province earlier this week.

Beijing parachuted in a central government fixer, Wang Hesheng, to take over those duties and shake up the region’s whole response to the virus, which has overwhelmed hospitals and also infected medical staff who have been left short of protective equipment.

Zhang Jin, the Communist Party secretary of Hubei’s health commission, and Liu Yingzi, director of the health commission, were both sacked on Tuesday.

Masked Xi Jinping warns of ‘grim’ fight with coronavirus

On Thursday, the health authorities in Hubei said they had revamped the criteria for identifying people infected with the virus, something that doctors and medical specialists in China and overseas had been calling for.

That resulted in a 10-fold surge in the number of confirmed cases reported on Thursday to 14,840. New deaths attributable to the contagion rose to 242, more than double the number for the previous day.

That, too, is an eerie echo of the Sars outbreak, when the dismissal of the officials in 2003 followed a 10-fold jump in the reported number of infections – at that time in the capital, Beijing.

The reshuffles follow Xi’s message on Wednesday that progress had been made in bringing the coronavirus outbreak under control and that, for most parts of the country, the focus should be on getting back to business.

“Getting back to business” has become the refrain from Beijing as concern mounts that the virus outbreak could derail China’s economy. Tens of millions of people across Hubei province have been under lockdown to try and prevent the spread of the disease, which causes pneumonia-like symptoms.

Countless events have been cancelled, along with flights in and out of China as world governments feared the virus may become a pandemic. This has left manufacturing lines empty, factories shuttered, and business contracts voided, all in the year Xi had said he would end poverty in the country.

Beijing’s top leadership is sending in trusted people to run Hubei and hoping to turn it around, the person familiar with the changes said. “We can’t waste time anymore. Those who are responsible must go.”

Early warnings by local doctors about the virus were largely ignored by local authorities, with several doctors receiving police punishments for taking their concerns to social media – “spreading rumours”, as the police put it.

One of the whistle-blower doctors, Li Wenliang, died on February 7 after being infected, setting off a massive storm of criticism and anger against the authorities on social media across China, with many saying the police actions against whistleblowers violated free-speech protections.

A clearly concerned Beijing then took the unusual step of quickly parachuting into Hubei a top team from the nation’s anti-corruption agency, the National Supervisory Commission, to investigate how the police dealt with Li Wenliang.

Additional reporting by Jun Mai

Purchase the China AI Report 2020 brought to you by SCMP Research and enjoy a 20% discount (original price US$400). This 60-page all new intelligence report gives you first-hand insights and analysis into the latest industry developments and intelligence about China AI. Get exclusive access to our webinars for continuous learning, and interact with China AI executives in live Q&A. Offer valid until 31 March 2020.

This article appeared in the South China Morning Post print edition as: Hubei party leaders sacked over outbreak