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Coronavirus

Under fire, Xi recasts himself as early coronavirus fighter

Critics blame party's authoritarian approach for spreading outbreak

Chinese President Xi Jinping is working to allay criticism of Beijing's initial response to the coronavirus.   © Reuters

BEIJING -- As criticism mounts over China's initial response to the new coronavirus, President Xi Jinping is aggressively pushing a narrative that the leadership was taking action weeks before previously reported.

Xi is also sending his close aides to Hubei Province -- home to the city of Wuhan at the center of the outbreak -- boosting his direct involvement in the response as the country's leadership works to contain public discontent over the situation.

The latest edition of the official party magazine Qiushi published Sunday suggests Xi was concerned about the situation from the get-go. In a speech to the Chinese Communist Party Politburo on Feb. 3, Xi said he "demanded measures to curb the outbreak" on Jan. 7, according to an online transcript.

Party- and state-run media had previously reported that Xi first gave orders to control the outbreak on Jan. 20.

Also at the meeting on Feb.3, the Xi administration did acknowledge shortcomings in its coronavirus response and the need to make up for them. But Xi takes a much more positive tone in the online transcript, saying the party "generally made the right call regarding the outbreak and responded effectively."

Despite Xi's iron grip on power, the administration is scrambling to change course amid frustrations over its response to the coronavirus.

"It began with the imposition of stern bans on the reporting of factual information that served to embolden deception at every level of government, although it only struck its true stride when bureaucrats throughout the system shrugged off responsibility for the unfolding situation," Xi critic and Tsinghua University professor Xu Zhangrun wrote in a scathing essay published online Feb. 4.

"They all blithely stood by as the crucial window of opportunity to deal with the outbreak of the infection snapped shut in their faces," Xu said, blaming the party's authoritarian attitude for hindering an early response.

The death of a whistleblower who was punished for alerting fellow Wuhan doctors about the disease in the early days of the outbreak prompted calls for freedom of speech among the educated class. More than 500 college professors and lawyers have signed an open letter calling the coronavirus epidemic "a man-made disaster created by the suppression of free speech."

Xi is also sending his proteges to the front line. The Communist Party by Thursday appointed Ying Yong, the Shanghai mayor, as secretary of the Hubei Provincial Committee. Wang Zhonglin, party chief of the Shandong Province capital of Jinan, had been named chief of Wuhan.

The party also tapped Chen Yixin as deputy head of the team overseeing the outbreak in Hubei. He is the secretary general of the Central Political and Legal Affairs Commission, the Communist Party's top law enforcement body.

Both Ying and Chen worked under Xi when the president was the party chief of Zhejiang Province. And all three have experience in either law enforcement or legal affairs with the party. 

At a conference held in Wuhan, Chen called for a tighter crackdown on internet content, railing against what he saw as "inadequate monitoring of the internet" that is encouraging "false information to sway public opinion."

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