China’s President Xi Jinping visited the city at the centre of the country’s coronavirus outbreak for the first time on Tuesday as Beijing reported the lowest number of new cases since January.
In a move widely seen as a signal that the Communist party believes it has finally brought the outbreak under control, state television showed Mr Xi meeting frontline medical workers, military commanders, volunteers and residents in Wuhan.
Mr Xi’s visit, which followed a rout in global markets on Monday, coincided with a dramatic fall in new coronavirus cases in China, according to official figures. The country reported just 19 cases on Tuesday, down from several hundred two weeks earlier and the lowest number since the start of nationwide reporting.
Outside of China, new cases continue to rise quickly, with countries such as South Korea, Italy and Iran experiencing severe outbreaks. Globally, there are almost 115,000 confirmed cases.
On Tuesday, markets rose in Asia following a historic fall on Monday. China’s CSI 300 edged up 1.8 per cent in morning trading and Hong Kong’s Hang Seng rose 1.7 per cent.
Mr Xi’s appearance in the city of about 11m, which is still under a strict quarantine, will allow the Communist party to declare an early victory in the fight against the disease, despite criticism of its handling of the crisis.
In recent weeks, the Communist party has sought to cast Mr Xi as the only person capable of leading the country through a health crisis that has killed more than 3,000 people in mainland China and infected more than 80,000.
“Investors are quite positive on this gesture,” said Zhu Chaoping, global market strategist at JPMorgan Asset Management. “It puts China in quite a different position from the US and EU.”
The Communist party’s publicity department has even published a book lauding Mr Xi and the party as global leaders in the response to the outbreak.
China’s media is heavily censored but many social media users have posted negative comments on the government’s response.
Video footage circulating online last week appeared to show Wuhan residents shouting from their flats at Sun Chunlan, the vice-premier, who was on a tour demonstrating the success of quarantine measures.
“It’s fake, it’s fake!” residents screamed from their balconies, as the entourage moved between buildings.
Many Chinese internet users at the weekend also criticised plans to carry out “gratitude education” that would teach Wuhan residents how to thank Mr Xi and the Communist party appropriately for its work in containing of the virus.
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While case numbers have fallen sharply, Mr Xi still faces big economic and financial challenges in the wake of the outbreak.
On Tuesday, China’s food inflation hit a 12-year high while industrial input prices slipped amid plunging global oil prices.
The official food price index rose 21.9 per cent in February, the highest reading since 2008, according to the National Bureau of Statistics. That drove the consumer price index to 5.2 per cent, one notch below an eight-year high of 5.4 per cent in January. Producer price index fell 0.4 per cent in February.
NBS blamed surging food prices on disease control measures, led by traffic restrictions and a delay in business reopening following the lunar new year holiday, that increased production and transportation costs.
In Hubei province, of which Wuhan is the capital, an estimated 55m people remain under strict quarantine. Cities such as Beijing and Shanghai have continued to enforce self-quarantine measures for anyone arriving from outside.
Power generation at six big energy groups reached 73 per cent of pre-lunar new year levels on Monday, a sign that the recovery was gaining momentum, according to research from Morgan Stanley. About 69 per cent of migrant workers had returned to China’s big cities.