By Se Young Lee and David Stanway
BEIJING/SHANGHAI (Reuters) – China’s Communist Party has replaced the party heads in the coronavirus stricken province of Hubei and its capital Wuhan, state media said on Thursday, reporting the most high profile officials to be dismissed in the wake of the epidemic.
The removal of Jiang Chaoliang, the leading Communist Party official of Hubei province, and Ma Guoqiang, his counterpart in Wuhan, follows the dismissal of two provincial health officials on Tuesday, and is part of a wider effort by Beijing to remove bureaucrats it accuses of shirking their duties.
The central government has set up a special cabinet task force under Premier Li Keqiang to handle the crisis, and the new appointments in Hubei suggest that China’s senior leaders are taking greater control.
Shanghai mayor Ying Yong has been appointed as the new secretary of the Hubei Provincial Committee of the Communist Party of China, replacing Jiang, the official Xinhua news agency said without explaining why Jiang was removed.
Ying worked closely with Chinese President Xi Jinping during the latter’s time as party boss and governor of Zhejiang province, which neighbours Shanghai.
Wuhan party chief Ma has been replaced by Wang Zhonglin, party boss of Jinan, the capital city of eastern Shandong province, Xinhua reported separately.
Officials in Hubei have been heavily criticised for their handling of the epidemic in a province of almost 60 million people. The outbreak began in Wuhan late last year, and has spread throughout China, killing more than 1,000 and infecting tens of thousands across the country.
Former Wuhan Party boss Ma admitted in a nationally televised interview that the impact of the virus on China and on the world “would have been less” if containment measures had been taken sooner.
Analysts have said that the initial delay in raising the alarm in Wuhan may have arisen from local officials’ fear of bringing bad news to the attention of the central government, especially as Lunar New Year festivities approached.
Allen Huang, a Wuhan native living in Beijing, told Reuters the outbreak was “a grave, man-made disaster” caused by mismanagement and deception at the city and provincial government level.
After the Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) outbreak in 2002-2003, China promised to improve the way it shared information about epidemics, and put in place a new system allowing hospitals to report new cases in real time.
“This Wuhan epidemic shows that the situation has not really improved,” said Willy Lam, an expert in Chinese politics at the Chinese University of Hong Kong.
(Reporting by Lusha Zhang, Yawen Chen, Min Zhang and Huizhong Wu in Beijing, David Stanway and Samuel Shen in Shanghai; writing by Se Young Lee; Editing by Kim Coghill & Simon Cameron-Moore)