The mayor of Wuhan in central China is stepping down, nearly a year after the city became the first place in the world to be locked down to contain the spread of the new coronavirus.
There was no official statement on the departure of Zhou Xianwang as mayor and his successor will need to be endorsed by the city’s legislature before the change can be announced.
But on Wednesday Zhou was identified as a senior member of the Hubei People’s Political Consultative Conference – not as Wuhan mayor – in a report on the provincial advisory body’s website.
It also named Huang Chuping, who was vice-governor of Hubei, as chief of the advisory body’s Communist Party committee, a role that usually goes to retiring senior officials.
Zhou and Huang are both 58 – close to the official retirement age of 60.
After the new virus was first reported in Wuhan in late 2019, Zhou and the city’s former party chief Ma Guoqiang were among the officials criticised for their slow response and poor handling of the outbreak.
Beijing responded to public anger in February by purging top leaders in the province, including Ma and then Hubei party chief Jiang Chaoliang. Ma was replaced by Wang Zhonglin, former party chief of Jinan in Shandong, and Jiang by Shanghai’s former mayor Ying Yong.
But Zhou stayed on as mayor, despite coming under fire for allowing more than 40,000 people to attend a Lunar New Year gathering in January as the virus was rapidly spreading.
He later admitted on state television that the city’s “warnings were not sufficient”.
Zhou was also criticised for imposing a strict, sudden lockdown on Wuhan – a city of 11 million people – from January 23 last year. After millions of angry Chinese took to social media to call for his removal, Zhou said he and other officials were “willing to be sacked to appease the people as long as the pandemic is controlled”.
A year on, many Wuhan residents say they are more concerned about the latest outbreaks of the virus in northern China than whether Zhou is stepping down as mayor.
James Gu, a project manager for a technology firm, said he still held Zhou and Ma responsible for the initial slow response to the outbreak, but he believed they might not have had the authority to make decisions at the time.
“But really, there is no excuse – they were the top officials in charge,” Gu said. “The officials in Qianjiang county nearby took the risk to lock down the city without waiting for approval from Beijing or Hubei. They had a lot less infections than Wuhan and they recovered much faster.”
Eric Ding, a building contractor, said it made no difference if Zhou was mayor or not – he was preparing in case Wuhan had to deal with a new outbreak.
“I learned a bitter lesson from the previous lockdown that lasted 76 days,” Ding said.
“When Zhou announced the lockdown, most of Wuhan had no time to prepare. So I’m now stocking up on personal protection gear for my staff and my family because of all the reports about a new wave [of infections],” he said.
“I’m not waiting for the government [to act] – I’m going to be ahead of them.”