A child wears a protective facemask in a subway in Shanghai on February 12, 2020. The number of fatalities from China's COVID-19 coronavirus epidemic jumped to 1,380 nationwide on February 14 after another 121 deaths were reported by the national health commission. (AFP/NOEL CELIS)

China moves to ease mounting anger with reset of virus fight


China took action on two fronts to gain control of the spiraling coronavirus outbreak gripping the country: reporting a dramatic increase in cases and ousting top officials who failed to check the disease’s expansion.

First, health authorities revealed Thursday that cases in Hubei province, where the disease first emerged, had surged by 45 percent to almost 50,000 after they included a new group of patients. That raised the global tally to almost 60,000, dashing hopes that the epidemic might be easing. Additional cases announced Friday by China increased the total further to more than 64,000 worldwide.

Authorities also announced the replacement of the two most senior Communist Party officials in Hubei and its hard-hit capital, Wuhan. Shanghai Mayor Ying Yong – a former top judge who once served under President Xi Jinping – was named to replace embattled provincial boss, Jiang Chaoliang.

The shakeup represented the biggest political fallout yet from an outbreak that has in a little over two months shaken confidence in China’s leaders and caused countries from the United States to Japan to restrict or block visits by its citizens. The decision on the heels of the expanded case tally was reminiscent of a boardroom reset, in which bad numbers are disclosed first to give the new team a clean slate.

“First of all, they are trying to clean up the backlog of untested people who haven’t been confirmed,” said Ether Yin, partner at Beijing-based consulting firm Trivium China. “It’s politically important for them to get the number right before the new party boss comes in, so that all the new confirmed cases happened under Jiang Chaoliang’s watch. The new party secretary needs a new starting line.”

The surprise revision came amid mounting speculation that China was undercounting cases of the new coronavirus strain, as countries around the world struggle to contain a disease that appears to spread when patients show only mild symptoms. Daily declines in new cases in Hubei earlier this week helped push US equity markets to record highs on Wednesday.

Asia stocks were mixed Friday as traders continued to digest China’s latest coronavirus data, after most global equity markets fell on Thursday. The moves came hours after Xi urged a meeting of the Politburo’s supreme Standing Committee to follow through on epidemic-control efforts, which he said had achieved “positive” results.

Xi has ordered “all-out” efforts to contain the disease and forcibly quarantined more than 40 million people in Hubei, while the party appointed a task force led by Premier Li Keqiang to coordinate the nationwide response. In recent days, the central government sent two senior officials to help lead the response in Hubei, and removed two top members of the provincial health commission from their posts.

Pressure has increased on the party after a nationwide outpouring of grief and fury over the death of Wuhan doctor Li Wenliang, who was accused by local police of spreading rumors after sounding one of the first warnings about the outbreak of the disease now known as COVID-19. Indications that news of Li’s death from the disease was also censored by Chinese authorities prompted further outrage on social media.

“With the full support of the central leading team, the new frontline commanders, together with some newly appointed officials to head the local disease control and prevention systems, have been entrusted with the urgent mission of getting to grips with the situation in the hardest-hit region,” the China Daily, a state-run newspaper directed at an English-speaking audience, wrote in a commentary published Thursday.

The reset met was with skepticism on Chinese social media, where residents had long speculated based on anecdotes reported in local media and shared online that case numbers were higher than the official tallies. Many compared the approach to the actions of a troubled company.

“Past liabilities got cleared, so the new officials can start afresh, unburdened by the prior failures,” wrote a Weibo user named Maitian with more than 200,000 followers. The post was widely shared on the Twitter-like platform before disappearing. By early Friday, “Wuhan case number unclear” had become a top trending topic on Weibo.

The reshuffle raises the stakes for Xi as he takes greater personal responsibility for the response. Ying was appointed mayor of Shanghai in January 2017 after a career spent mostly in the financial center and neighboring Zhejiang province, including stints under the future president.

Jiang, a former governor of Jilin province who’s held posts at several banks, has led Hubei’s provincial party committee since October 2016. He had previously led the People’s Bank of China’s Shenzhen and Guangzhou branches during the Asian financial crisis.

Local officials often bear the brunt when crises threaten the ruling party. China fired more than 100 officials, including the health minister and the mayor of Beijing, after allegations that local governments suppressed information about a similar outbreak of Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome, or SARS, in 2003.

“This is a critical juncture of the campaign, so you also want to show resolve – that the central government is winning the war, and is even willing to change the leadership to get that done,” said Yanzhong Huang, a senior fellow for global health at the New York-based Council on Foreign Relations and director of Seton Hall University’s Center for Global Health Studies. “This is a demonstration of resolve – and the fact that they’re willing to take heed of public opinion.”

The change in counting method will renew concern over the effectiveness the tests currently used to identify stricken patients globally, and raise questions over the true scale of the outbreak that has killed almost 1,400 people, all but three on mainland China.

The traditional nucleic acid test identifies the virus in a patient’s body through its specific genetic sequence, but reports of a severe lack of test kits and the unreliability of test results have circulated since the start of the crisis. In Wuhan, people with symptoms like fever and coughing wait for hours in line to get tested. Those who test negative are usually turned away from the hospital.

The issue has cropped up outside China, as well. On Wednesday, the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said that test kits shipped to labs around the world last week have proved faulty.

The spike in number will likely intensify public anger against the government’s handling of the crisis. In an update to its treatment guidelines on Feb. 5, China’s National Health Commission added the category of “clinically diagnosed cases” in recognition of a shortage of nucleic acid tests. Hubei didn’t include that category in its count until Thursday, a week later.

Yin, the Trivium partner, said the revision could actually help counter skepticism about China’s official data on the outbreak. “If the government is willing to see numbers jump by over 10,000 overnight, I would say that actually shows the government is not hiding the numbers this time,” Yin said.