China’s president calls for more online control as coronavirus toll rises

A passenger wears swimming goggles and a face mask as he waits inside the high-speed train station connecting Hong Kong to mainland China. (File photo: AFP)

Chinese President Xi Jinping has called for tightened control over online discussion and increased policing to ensure “positive energy” and social stability, state media said Saturday, as the country struggles to contain the deadly new coronavirus.

Xi’s remarks were made public as the authorities have faced rare bouts of public anger over the handling of an epidemic that has killed more than 1,500 people and infected some 66,000 across the country.

Censors had allowed some online criticism of local officials in central Hubei — the epicentre and origin of the crisis — but calls for freedom of speech and political reform were scrubbed after the death of a whistleblowing doctor from the virus.

The government must “strengthen the management and control of online media,” and “crack down on those who seize the opportunity to create rumors” on the internet, Xi said in the February 3 speech published by state media.

Simultaneously, “it is necessary to increase use of police force and strengthen the visible use of police,” Xi said, calling for a crackdown on behavior that “disrupts social order” including hoarding medical supplies.

Xi urged party members to “dare to criticize” those who had failed to carry out the Communist Party central committee’s instructions, and warned “those who fail to perform their duties shall be punished according to discipline and law.”

Local officials in Hubei have already begun to feel the force of Xi’s orders.

On Thursday, the political chiefs of Hubei and its capital, Wuhan, were sacked and replaced by Xi loyalists with security backgrounds.

The province’s top two health officials have also been fired.

Xi also called for the government to emphasize effective actions it has taken and “vividly describe touching deeds” from the frontlines of the fight against the virus.

“Let positive energy fill the cyberspace from start to end,” Xi said in the speech, given earlier this month at a meeting of the Politburo Standing Committee, China’s ruling council.

Xi initially kept a low profile in the early weeks of the crisis but has stepped up his public rhetoric in recent days on what he has called a “people’s war” against the virus.

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Last Update: 13:25 KSA 16:25 - GMT 13:25
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