Coronavirus pandemic : News analysis

Rocky ride for Wuhan's new party secretary

He's made several gaffes in rush to prove himself, but infections have fallen since he took on job

Wuhan's new party secretary Wang Zhonglin was keen to prove his mettle when he was sent to the city in mid-February to deal with the ongoing coronavirus epidemic that his immediate predecessor had fumbled on.

Gaffes mattered little.

Eager to show President Xi Jinping that he was on top of things and had what it took to contain the contagion, Mr Wang eased the one-month-old lockdown on the city of 11 million on Feb 24, only to reinstate it about 31/2 hours later.

The flip-flop was a classic case of the left hand not knowing what the right hand was doing.

Mr Wang speculated, but misinterpreted, what President Xi was thinking, party insiders said.

"He fervently wanted to show that he had the epidemic under control after less than two weeks into his job," one insider, requesting anonymity, told The Straits Times.

"But when Wang Zhonglin learnt that his (unilateral) decision to lift the lockdown contradicted Xi's thinking, he locked down Wuhan again," the insider said.

Mr Wang had belatedly found out that President Xi stopped short of declaring victory over the coronavirus during a meeting of the party's 25-member, decision-making Politburo that day. The lockdown should not have been eased.

"Only when Wuhan is victorious, will Hubei be victorious. Only when Hubei is victorious, will the entire country be victorious," Mr Xi said at the meeting, a sign that a victory lap was too early as the epidemic was not yet contained.

Wuhan, where the first Covid-19 victim surfaced last December, is the provincial capital of Hubei in central China.


People at a residential compound in Wuhan, Hubei province, on March 10. As new Wuhan party
secretary Wang Zhonglin's mandate was to contain the epidemic, he is still perceived by the
party to have done his job despite the gaffes, insiders said. He made sure forced quarantines
and other draconian measures were not breached. PHOTO: REUTERS

In another gaffe, Mr Wang and his officials had arranged for Vice-Premier Sun Chunlan to go on an inspection tour of a housing complex in Wuhan on March 5 to check out the distribution of daily necessities to residents in forced quarantine at home.

It was supposed to be picture-perfect with volunteers delivering meat and vegetables on the doorsteps of residents and workers sprucing up the complex and spraying disinfectant before Madam Sun arrived. But it went awry when angry residents shouted from their apartment windows "fake, fake", exposing it as a Potemkin tour.

 
 

Embarrassed, Mr Wang declared the next day that Wuhan residents should be "educated" and be "grateful" to President Xi and the party, and should "obey and follow" the party, triggering social media outrage.

"In Chinese politics, pleasing your boss is more important than pleasing the people or doing the logical thing," said independent historian Wu Si.

According to a Chinese saying: "Whatever those at the top like, those below will surely go into overdrive."

On her part, Madam Sun, 70, who sits on the Politburo, making her China's most powerful woman, called for a thorough investigation into the embarrassing episode. She also pledged to "eliminate formalism and bureaucracy" and told local officials to face up to problems.

When President Xi set foot in Wuhan on March 10, he sought to control the damage done by Mr Wang by thanking the city's residents instead of heaping praise on the party or himself for leading the "people's war" against Covid-19.

But to Mr Wang's credit, the number of infections and deaths in Wuhan has dwindled since he assumed his new job on Feb 13.

At 58, Mr Wang is relatively young by Chinese standards and a candidate for future promotion to governor of Hubei, insiders said. Before coming to Wuhan, he was party chief of Jinan, capital of Shandong province.

As Mr Wang's mandate was to contain the epidemic, he is still perceived by the party to have done his job despite the gaffes, insiders said. He made sure forced quarantines and other draconian measures were not breached.

Contrary to what critics say, Mr Wang is "not incompetent", a second party insider said, defending the new party secretary. "He is just not very familiar with what the masses think."

The Wuhan municipal government did not respond to queries sent by The Straits Times.

 
 

In yet another faux pas, pictures of garbage trucks being used to deliver meat to residents under lockdown were posted on social media after Madam Sun's inspection tour, sparking further fury.

"Officials are accountable to their superiors... The farther they are from the people, the bigger the chance of a miscalculation," said Mr Wu, the historian.

In China, performance counts, but ultimately promotions hinge on loyalty and patronage.

As party secretary, Mr Wang outranks the mayor, who was the butt of jokes on Chinese social media for wearing his face mask upside down during a news conference on Jan 26.

The provincial governor of Hubei was also ridiculed by social media users for incorrectly giving the wrong figure twice when asked at the news conference about the number of face masks produced in the province.

But both the Wuhan mayor and the Hubei governor kept their jobs in the February reshuffle that saw the party secretaries of Wuhan and Hubei sacked.

Mr Wang's immediate predecessor, Mr Ma Guoqiang, stepped down because he lacked political acumen and was averse to making difficult decisions or bold recommendations to the central government, insiders said.

For Mr Ma and Mr Jiang Chaoliang, a banker-turned-Hubei party secretary, it was business as usual. Like many officials, they acted only when told, refrained from asking questions and speculated - an art in Chinese politics - about what their superiors were thinking.

Deaf to warnings from experts of a pneumonia of unknown origin surfacing, Wuhan and Hubei went ahead with the annual joint session of their respective legislatures and advisory bodies.

Wuhan's joint session was held from Jan 6 to 10, while that of Hubei lasted from Jan 11 to 17 - the most important political event for the city and province this year.

Also, Mr Ma's rigid thinking prevented him from intervening to force the cancellation of a private banquet in Wuhan's Baibuting district attended by 40,000 people on Jan 18.

Wuhan held a gala as scheduled on Jan 21 to usher in the Year of the Golden Rat.

The dismissal of the party secretaries of Wuhan and Hubei did little to placate anger online over the death of Dr Li Wenliang, a whistle-blower who contracted the coronavirus and died last month after police warned him and seven other medical doctors for "spreading rumours" about the appearance of a mysterious disease.

By the time the week-long Chinese New Year holidays came around in late January, it was too late to prevent the coronavirus from spreading.

Hundreds of millions of Chinese travelled home by plane, train, bus or private cars for family reunions in the world's biggest annual human migration.

 
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on March 23, 2020, with the headline 'Rocky ride for Wuhan's new party secretary'. Print Edition | Subscribe