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China's Xi pays first visit to virus epicentre Wuhan

The Communist Party leader arrived by plane in Hubei's capital for an "inspection of the epidemic prevention and control work" in the region, according to the official Xinhua news agency.

FILE: This photo released on 10 February 2020 by China's Xinhua News Agency shows Chinese President Xi Jinping (L) wearing a protective facemask as a health official (R) checks his body temperature during an inspection of the novel coronavirus pneumonia prevention and control work at the Anhuali Community in Beijing. Picture: AFP.

BEIJING - Chinese President Xi Jinping arrived in Wuhan on Tuesday for his first visit to the epicentre of the coronavirus epidemic since the crisis erupted in January -- a major sign that officials believe the outbreak is under control.

Xi's unannounced visit comes as unprecedented quarantine measures that have sealed off Wuhan and the rest of central Hubei province since late January appear to have paid off, with new infections dropping dramatically in recent weeks.

The Communist Party leader arrived by plane in Hubei's capital for an "inspection of the epidemic prevention and control work" in the region, according to the official Xinhua news agency.

State media showed Xi, wearing a mask, speaking via video-link to frontline medical workers and patients at one of the field hospitals set up in the city.

Xi will also visit military officials, community workers, police, patients and residents, Xinhua said.

China's most powerful leader since Mao Zedong is usually a daily fixture in state media but has stayed out of the spotlight for much of the crisis and assigned Premier Li Keqiang to oversee the response to the epidemic.

Li and a vice premier have already visited the virus-stricken city of Wuhan.

But as the number of new cases has fallen in recent weeks, state media has played up Xi's role in the fight against the outbreak, releasing a speech last month in which he said he had been giving instructions since early January.

"During the worst of the outbreak, Xi avoided the epicentre because he did not want to be blamed, but when the situation gets better, he shows up in order to receive praise," said Bruce Lui, a senior lecturer in journalism at Hong Kong Baptist University.

Authorities have faced rare and fierce criticism online over their handling of the virus, with local officials coming under particular scrutiny for punishing whistleblowers in an apparent attempt to cover up the outbreak in early January.

Jean-Pierre Cabestan, a political science professor at Hong Kong Baptist University, said that the carefully orchestrated visit was "long overdue for most Chinese".

"Xi is trying to regain the initiative, to show that he is a considerate and caring leader, but also that he is in charge," he said.

GLOBAL CASES SOAR

The death of doctor Li Wenliang, who died from the COVID-19 illness in February, sparked a wave of grief and anger online. He was among a group of people who had raised the alarm as early as December.

A visit by vice premier Sun Chunlan to a Wuhan residential community last week was met with angry public heckling, showing how easily state propaganda efforts could backfire.

"Sun had to bear these risk factors first for Xi, like clearing a minefield before he arrived," said Lui.

The virus is believed to have emerged in December at a market that sold wild animals in Wuhan before ballooning into a national and then a global epidemic.

More than 4,000 people have died and over 110,000 have been infected worldwide, with the majority in China, though daily infections are now growing at a much faster pace abroad.

China reported only 19 new cases on Tuesday, the lowest figure since it started publishing data on January 21.

Seventeen cases were in Wuhan while the other two were imported from abroad.

The country had been tallying thousands of cases every week in January and most of February.

Alfred Wu, associate professor at the National University of Singapore's Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy, said that Xi's visit was to signal that the "outbreak has basically ended in China", given the steady decline in new cases.