China Tries to Quell Uproar After Ex-Convict Got Past Wuhan Lockdown

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China officials pledged to investigate how an ex-convict infected with the coronavirus got to Beijing from a Wuhan prison, in a case fanning new criticism about how the month-old lockdown is being handled.

The woman traveled by car to a relative’s home in the Chinese capital after being released Saturday from Wuhan Women’s Prison — a facility stricken by an outbreak affecting more than 250 people. Her coronavirus infection was disclosed by local officials Wednesday, days after Chinese President Xi Jinping urged Beijing to “spare no effort” to keep the disease from expanding at the heart of Communist Party power.

The woman’s full name wasn’t released, fueling speculation about her identify and what special dispensation she may have received to get past travel restrictions effecting some 60 million people in Hubei province. She was a former county water bureau employee sentenced to 10 years in prison for corruption charges, Caixin magazine reported Thursday, citing a relative it didn’t identify.

The incident prompted quick promises of investigations by authorities including Hubei party secretary Ying Yong, who was installed in the job earlier this month amid public criticism of the government’s response to the outbreak. Xi has claimed personal responsibly for the decision to lock down Hubei, with an economy the size of Sweden’s, to keep the outbreak from spreading.

“We will get to the bottom no matter who has been involved,” Ying said Wednesday, according to the official Hubei Daily newspaper. The case “has severely violated the ban on exiting Wuhan and Hubei. Such things should be strictly prohibited at this critical moment of virus control,” he said.

The unusually rapid response underscores leaders’ sensitivity toward allegations of shortcomings in its handling of an outbreak that has infected more than 80,000 people and killed more than 2,800 in China and elsewhere around the globe. Xi has called the episode a “major test” of party rule.

Special Permits

Separately, Vice Justice Minister Liu Zhiqiang was named to lead an investigation including the party’s Central Political and Legal Affairs Commission, the Supreme People’s Procuratorate and Ministry of Public Security. Beijing’s local anti-corruption body also said Thursday it had set up a task force to investigate how she was able to cross into city and access a residential compound.

Wuhan residents with special needs could apply for travel permits, the party’s Global Times newspaper reported, citing a traffic bureau employee it didn’t identify. The Caixin report said the woman was unaware of the outbreak at the Wuhan prison and wasn’t tested for the virus before she left for Beijing, although she already had a fever.

Even the country’s tightly censored media joined in the criticism of the incident.

“It is most important to systematically sort out whether there are loopholes and weak links in the current epidemic prevention and control system,” the Paper, a Shanghai based news site, said in acommentary Thursday. People are concerned whether “the epidemic prevention system is robust enough to withstand potential erosion and keep us all safe,” the commentary said.

— With assistance by Dandan Li

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