China’s Communist Party signaled confidence in its fight against the coronavirus on Tuesday when the party’s general secretary and Chinese leader Xi Jinping made a surprise visit to Wuhan, where the outbreak began.
It was Xi’s first visit since the city of roughly 11 million was put on lockdown in late January, despite the leader saying he was personally directing China’s efforts against COVID-19. Since then, more than 115,000 people have been infected worldwide, including more than 80,000 Chinese citizens, of whom 3,140 have died.
The visit came as infection numbers skyrocketed in other countries across the globe but dropped dramatically in China.
After a near-total shutdown of most of the country’s economy and transportation for almost two months, with tight surveillance and movement control measures implemented at the neighborhood level across the country, several Chinese provinces have downgraded their emergency levels.
China reported just 19 new cases Tuesday, the lowest number since nationwide reporting began. Most new infections have been “imported” cases — people reentering China from abroad — rather than cases spread from within China.
Italy, Iran and South Korea all have more than 7,000 coronavirus cases, while the U.S. currently has 755 confirmed cases. Repeats of China’s initial problems -- a shortage of tests, overwhelmed hospitals, insufficient social distancing, overconfident political figures who end up infected themselves -- have played out in several countries.
Xi said the coronavirus had been “basically curbed” in Wuhan and the surrounding Hubei province, announcing that China had succeeded in stabilizing the situation and “turning the tide.”
The daily 7 p.m. state news broadcast showed Xi wearing an N95 mask in a large room flanked by military and party officials. He stood several feet away from a large digital screen, speaking to a coronavirus patient through video chat.
“Now what you must do is fortify your faith. We will definitely win this battle. Wuhan must be victorious, Hubei must be victorious, and all of China must be victorious,” he said, pumping a clenched fist.
He also spoke to medical workers through the screen and outside Huoshenshan hospital, one of several facilities built expressly for the coronavirus response. He visited a residential neighborhood and greeted community workers, praising them for frontline work in caring for quarantined residents locked in their homes.
It was a moment of relief for many as Xi’s appearance bolstered citizens’ hopes that China may be able to return to normal in coming weeks, but tension for others as the party tightened its grip on China’s coronavirus narrative.
Wuhan residents shared videos and photos on social media Tuesday morning of police entering apartments in the compound Xi visited and allegedly telling residents not to make trouble.
Two police entered each home, the residents claimed, posting photos of officers in protective medical suits that said “Wuhan Public Security” on the back, sitting on their balconies under racks of drying laundry.
Last week, Wuhan residents had screamed out of their apartment windows at Vice Premier Sun Chunlan while she was inspecting a compound. “Fake! It’s all fake!” they shouted, exposing that the disinfection and food delivery arrangements for the quarantined residents were a setup pulled together right before Sun arrived.
“There’s no way to describe the kind of anger in our hearts,” said a Wuhan resident, a businessman living close to the compound Xi was inspecting, who asked not to publish his name for protection.
He couldn’t verify what was happening in the neighboring compound, he said, because -- like most other Wuhan residents -- he’d been unable to leave his apartment for more than 40 days.
“I have many relatives and friends around me who were infected. Many elderly people, my friends, aunts and uncles, have died. Entire families have gone extinct,” he said in a phone interview.
“All this is because of the doctors who were silenced and punished after speaking up. That allowed this virus to transmit to the whole world. But we Wuhan people have suffered the most.”
He said that food prices had multiplied in the last two months while many people were trapped at home, unable to work but forced to pay high prices despite supposed nationwide efforts to aid Wuhan with donations of fresh produce.
Meanwhile, individuals who tried to organize grassroots relief efforts, report problems or seek help online were threatened by state security. He had received threats after trying to organize volunteer efforts from neighboring Hunan province, he said.
“State security call me and tell me to stop speaking up. I tell them, you should first take care of the alone, the poor, the elderly.... They die at home and nobody knows,” he said.
He dismissed Xi’s visit as a performance, surrounded by officials, special police and military. “He’s living in a world of total separation from the people.”