When the mayor of Wuhan was asked on China’s state broadcaster why he had not disclosed the severity of the coronavirus outbreak in his city, he replied that his hands were tied by laws that required him to seek authorisation from Beijing.
“I hope everyone can understand why there wasn’t timely disclosure,” Zhou Xianwang said in the unusually frank interview this week. “After I received information, I needed authorisation before making it public,” he explained.
In a country that insists on political unity, the interview stands as a rare example of stresses between central and local government breaking into the open, as China’s response to the deadly respiratory virus becomes one of the biggest challenges to Xi Jinping’s presidency since he took power in 2012.
While the first cases of workers and shoppers contracting pneumonia in a market in the Chinese city emerged in early December, Beijing waited several weeks before issuing orders to curb the virus’s spread. Since then, 170 people have died and at least 7,711 have been infected.
For China’s ruling Communist party, handling the fallout of deadly natural disasters, industrial accidents, mass riots and public health crises is critical, said Jeremy Brown, a Chinese history professor at Simon Fraser University in Vancouver.
“The party propaganda says it is great, glorious and correct . . . It’s not allowed to mishandle these things,” Mr Brown said.
The party line for responding to such accidents, a law written in the years following the deadly Sars outbreak and passed in 2007, holds local officials directly responsible for outbreaks.
“If there is a sense of any mishandling — and of course there will be mishandling — then local government officials are blamed,” Mr Brown said.
So far, public anger has largely been directed at officials in Wuhan and the wider Hubei province, especially after the provincial governor had to correct himself twice in a recent press conference. Internet commentators latched on to the mistakes as proof of incompetence.
But some critics believe ultimate blame lies with Mr Xi. Wu Qiang, a former politics lecturer at Tsinghua University in Beijing, said the local government in Wuhan did not have the power to act decisively because they were at the bottom of a chain of command that started with the “supreme leader” — a Mao-era title recently bestowed on Mr Xi.
“It is during a public health emergency like this that we really see the flaws of China’s political system and how the bureaucracy has weakened [under Xi],” said Mr Wu. “Everyone — from the central government to the local government to the bureaucracy to the party to the military — was waiting for orders from the ‘supreme leader’ before acting.”
Mr Xi has centralised power to a greater extent than any leader in decades in his quest to “rejuvenate” the nation. Yet in recent months his vision has had to contend with rolling protests in Hong Kong and a sweeping election victory for Taiwan’s independence-leaning president.
Now he is in charge of managing a public health crisis that has disrupted Chinese society during the lunar new year, its paramount holiday. Unlike the dilemmas in Hong Kong and Taiwan, the coronavirus cannot be blamed on “hostile foreign forces”.
Wuhan’s government attracted a fresh wave of outrage on Thursday after bloggers identified eight individuals called in for questioning by the police in early January as medical personnel who had been attempting to raise the alarm about the virus.
Internet users shared a series of screenshots from private groups on the messaging platform WeChat that showed discussions in late December where a doctor called Li Wenliang posted messages about seven cases of “Sars” being confirmed in Wuhan’s market.
“Here is the ‘rumour’ that doctor Li Wenliang was asked to ‘come to tea’ for,” one user wrote in a well-shared comment. Many suggested Mr Li was likely to be the same doctor who gave an anonymous interview this week to the Beijing Youth Daily, which was quickly deleted hours later.
In the interview, the doctor said he had been warned by police after telling a group of university students to stay away from the market because cases of Sars had been found there. Days later, he got a fever and was put in isolation with a high temperature, although test results had not come back confirming whether he had the coronavirus, he told the newspaper.
The outcry over Mr Li’s case came after China’s supreme court took the rare step of criticising Wuhan police for punishing eight people for “rumour mongering” in the early days of the outbreak after they said that the virus was Sars. Wuhan police later said the group had not been formally detained, only “educated and criticised”.