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Coronavirus

China's rush to quell Beijing outbreak underscores political stakes

Xi leadership grapples with cluster of new coronavirus infections tied to food market

The Xinfadi wholesale market in Beijing was locked down Saturday, after suspicions arose about a cluster of coronavirus cases apparently linked to the facility.   © Reuters

BEIJING -- Public security vehicles packed the area around the largest wholesale fresh food market in Beijing on Monday morning, an area seen as the source of a fresh cluster of coronavirus cases.

Stationed at the entrance to the shuttered Xinfadi market were members of the People's Armed Police, a paramilitary unit charged with maintaining public order. The presence of these troops, who are responsible for guarding locations such as Tiananmen Square, signals China's alarm at the possibility of a politically destabilizing second wave of infections in the capital.

The Beijing government said Monday that 79 cases connected to the market in the city's Fengtai district were confirmed in the four days through Sunday. The capital reported 36 new infections for two straight days, the highest daily tallies since late March.

Xinfadi usually teems with people from early in the day, including workers buying domestic and foreign ingredients for restaurants and supermarkets, as well as retail customers.

After suspicions arose about an infection cluster linked to the market, city authorities closed it on Saturday and locked down 11 nearby communities. All large-scale food markets in the capital were closed as well.

The government is using mass screening to try to prevent the cluster from developing into a full-blown second wave of cases. The municipal government said in a news conference Monday that it is "swiftly entering a wartime footing."

All of the 200,000 people who have visited Xinfadi since May 30 will undergo polymerase chain reaction, or PCR, diagnostic tests and have been ordered to self-quarantine at home. A local stadium has been converted into a temporary testing facility.

The goal is to quickly identify and isolate asymptomatic carriers who could spread the disease more broadly. The city says it conducted 76,499 tests Sunday, with 59 positive results. Because China counts cases as confirmed only after the test result is followed by a doctor's diagnosis, the number of infections could rise further.

The emergence of a coronavirus cluster in the backyard of the Communist Party's top officials poses a potential threat to President Xi Jinping's leadership. The State Council, China's cabinet, had issued its first white paper on the virus June 7, calling the country's response a "major strategic success" under Xi.

Cai Qi, the Communist Party secretary of Beijing and a confidant of Xi, called a meeting of senior officials Sunday and ousted the deputy head of the Fengtai district, along with two lower-level officials. Netizens questioned the move, finding it odd that responsibility for the outbreak was placed only on the vice chief's shoulders.

Xi and his government have touted China's success in controlling the virus while the rest of the world struggles, and have used it as evidence of the superiority of Communist Party rule compared with Western democracies. The party is scrambling to prevent a second wave that could undermine these talking points.

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