China replaces Hubei and Wuhan party chiefs over mishandling of coronavirus outbreak

In a photo from Feb 2, 2020, former Hubei party chief Jiang Chaoliang (centre) inspects the newly completed Huoshenshan Hospital in Wuhan. PHOTO: REUTERS

SINGAPORE - China on Thursday (Feb 13) sacked the top political leader of Hubei province, the centre of a coronavirus outbreak that has sickened tens of thousands and killed more than 1,300.

Former Shanghai mayor Ying Yong will take over from current party chief Jiang Chaoliang, the first leadership change since the outbreak. This follows the removal of two provincial health officials last week.

Hubei and Wuhan bureaucrats came under heavy criticism for their mishandling of the virus, which has since infected more than 48,000 all over China.

The announcement was made following a meeting of top party cadres in Hubei province, said a notice carried by the official Xinhua news agency.

The adjustment was "based on the overall situation, according to the needs of the epidemic prevention and control work and the actual situation of the leadership team in Hubei Province", Xinhua reported.

It added that the change was decided after "thorough consideration and careful study".

According to an attached biography, Mr Ying, 62, had previously held posts in the Zhejiang Discipline Inspection Commission and was head of the courts in Zhejiang and Shanghai.

Mr Ying worked closely with Chinese President Xi Jinping during Mr Xi's time as party boss and governor of Zhejiang province.

The Communist Party leadership has also removed the party chief of Wuhan, the capital city of Hubei province, replacing him with Mr Wang Zhonglin, who led the party in Jinan, the capital city of Shandong province.

The removal of political office holders is meant to provide a scapegoat and is an attempt to assuage public anger, said political scientist Lynette Ong from the University of Toronto.

"But it really does not address the root cause of the problem, that is, the lack of information transparency and information control, which are deeply institutional in nature," she said, noting that Mr Ying is a close ally of President Xi.

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"While we are not sure whether he will indeed do a better job, what is almost certain is the political narrative coming out of Hubei from now on will be more aligned with Xi's."

The central Chinese province reported a dramatic spike in coronavirus infections on Thursday, with 14,840 new cases after a new methodology of confirming cases was adopted, bringing the total number of infections in the province to 48,206.

It has raised the total number of nationwide infections to nearly 60,000.

The virus is believed to have originated late last year at a seafood market in Wuhan that also sold wild animals.

Pressure on local officials for their perceived incompetence has mounted particularly after the death of a Chinese doctor last week, who had been punished by Wuhan authorities for raising the alarm about the new virus.

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Wuhan authorities also faced criticism in January for going ahead with an annual public banquet for 40,000 families just days before the city was placed on lockdown.

Other changes have been taking place in the province, including the sacking of a top Red Cross official in Wuhan for dereliction of duty, while senior Beijing official Chen Yixin has been sent to Wuhan to guide epidemic control work.

Separately, Beijing is also replacing the head of its office that oversees matters in Hong Kong and Macau, following months of anti-government demonstrations in the Asian financial hub that has bitterly split the city.

In an announcement carried by Xinhua, the Chinese government said Mr Zhang Xiaoming would be removed as director of the Hong Kong and Macau Affairs Office (HKMAO) in Beijing.

He will be replaced by Mr Xia Baolong, 67, vice-chairman of the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference.

Mr Xia was President Xi's deputy when Mr Xi was Communist Party secretary of Zhejiang province from 2003 to 2007.

The government also said on Thursday that it had appointed as deputy directors of the HKMAO Mr Luo Huining, who became the new liaison office head in January, and Mr Fu Ziying, the director of the Macau liaison office.

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