February 11, 2020 / 3:01 AM / 5 months ago

UPDATE 1-China's virus-hit Hubei dismisses provincial health commission party boss, director

(Adds details on order to report dereliction of duty, context on doctor’s death)

By David Stanway and Yilei Sun

SHANGHAI/BEIJING, Feb 11 (Reuters) - China’s Hubei province, the epicentre of the coronavirus outbreak, has dismissed the Communist Party boss and a director of the provincial health commission amid widespread public criticism of the authorities handling of the epidemic.

China’s anti-corruption body said Hubei health commission chief Zhang Jin and director Liu Yingzi had been sacked for unspecified reasons and their roles would be filled by Wang Hesheng, a member of the provincial committee of the Communist Party.

The central government in Beijing also urged members of the public to report any examples of dereliction of duty among local governments, and officials have been threatened with dismissal if they have been found to have shirked their responsibilities.

Dozens of low-level health officials across the country have also lost their jobs for failing to contain the spread of the epidemic, which emerged from an illegal wildlife market in Hubei’s capital of Wuhan late last year and has claimed more than 1000 lives.

Authorities in Wuhan and Hubei province have taken much of the blame on social media for failing to contain the initial outbreak in December or to report it to higher levels of government. Hubei Governor Wang Xiaodong and Wuhan Mayor Zhou Xianwang have also come under heavy criticism.

The city government has also been under fire for its heavy-handed treatment of eight medical personnel accused of “spreading rumours” about the new flu-like virus at the end of last year, including doctor Li Wenliang, who died from the disease on Friday.

China’s corruption watchdog sent a team to Wuhan to investigate “issues raised by the public in connection with Dr. Li Wenliang”.

Speaking on BBC television on Sunday, Liu Xiaoming, China’s ambassador to Britain, also placed the blame for Li’s treatment by police squarely on the regional government.

“It was not the Chinese authorities - it was local,” he said.

Analysts say China’s increasingly centralised political system means local governments cannot win when it comes to handling crises like the coronavirus.

“If they were totally frank about the picture and divulged the situation from day one, then the party secretary and mayor would lose their jobs, plus the state propaganda machinery would direct the anger of the people towards the local officials,” said Willy Lam, an expert in Chinese politics at the Chinese University of Hong Kong.

“It is do and be damned, don’t do and be damned.”

Reporting by David Stanway and Yilei Sun; Editing by Muralikumar Anantharaman and Stephen Coates

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