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Coronavirus

China penalizes 400 local officials as public ire mounts

Party acknowledges missteps in handling coronavirus

Chinese Premier Li Keqiang, center, speaks to medical workers during a visit to a hospital in Wuhan on Jan. 27.   © Reuters

BEIJING -- The Chinese Communist Party has acknowledged "shortcomings" in the response to the coronavirus and has punished hundreds of local officials in a bid to defuse public anger toward the party for failing to nip the outbreak in the bud.

The Politburo Standing Committee, China's top decision-making body, concluded in a meeting Monday that the nation's emergency management system must be improved, Xinhua reported.

More than 400 local officials had been removed or otherwise penalized over poor handling of the outbreak as of Monday, media reports show.

Xinhua recently reported that 337 officials were disciplined in the Hubei Province city of Huanggang alone. Huanggang is second only to provincial capital Wuhan -- believed to be the source of the outbreak -- in confirmed cases, with more than 1,200.

Officials have also been punished in Tianjin and in municipalities of Hebei and Fujian provinces. A senior official in the city of Hechi in the Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region was ousted after being found to have returned there after attending a wedding reception in the Wuhan area, then gone to a drinking party instead of being under medical observation.

The wave of disciplinary measures followed a Politburo Standing Committee meeting on Jan. 25, the Lunar New Year. President Xi Jinping ordered all party committees in companies and local governments to make an all-out effort to tackle the outbreak based on the decisions of party leadership.

The State Council, China's cabinet, warned the previous day that any delayed or false reports related to the virus would be severely punished.

Some local officials have spoken up against the moves to further centralize control over China's response to the outbreak.

Wuhan Mayor Zhou Xianwang acknowledged in a Jan. 27 interview on state-run China Central Television that local authorities had "failed to disclose relevant information in a timely manner."

But Zhou hinted that the central government also bore some responsibility. "As a local government, we can only disclose information after being authorized," he said.

Wuhan party chief Ma Guoqiang appeared on CCTV on Friday at what is believed to have been the direction of the party's Publicity Department, which oversees the station. "I feel ashamed of myself," he said. "If we had taken strong measures earlier, the situation would be much better."

Observers have criticized poor coordination between China's increasingly powerful central leadership and local bodies. As China has moved toward one-man rule since Xi took power in 2012, local governments have frequently been left unable to act without directives from the top.

When severe acute respiratory syndrome, or SARS, spread to Beijing in 2003, then-Hainan Province party chief Wang Qishan was tapped as acting mayor to spearhead the city's response to the outbreak. Wang is now vice president in the central government.

Chinese netizens have called for top officials in Wuhan and Hubei Province to be called to account.

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