The Year of the Rat looks set to get off on a rocky start, says the Financial Times' James Kynge.
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HONG KONG: The “year of the pig” has gone from bad to worse for the Chinese Communist party and Chinas President Xi Jinping.
So far, there is little cause to expect the year of the rat, which starts on Saturday (Jan 25), will turn out any better.
The outbreak of viral pneumonia, which has spread from mainland China to Japan, Macau, South Korea, Hong Kong, Taiwan and the US, might seem like mere bad luck.
But allegations of official incompetence and cover-ups are threatening to besmirch the Communist partys image.
NOT ENOUGH WARNING
Zhou Xianwang, the mayor of Wuhan, a city of more than 10 million people at the centre of the outbreak, told Chinas state-owned television that “there was not enough warning” to local residents in a district called Baibuting who attended a huge banquet involving over 40,000 families on Sunday.
This was in spite of scores of pneumonia cases already reported in the city.
“The reason why the Baibuting community continued to host the Banquet this year was based on the previous judgment that the spread of the epidemic was limited to humans, so there was not enough warning,” he said.
Hundreds of commentators on Chinese social media castigated the mayor for his response to the crisis.
Many of the cases of pneumonia reported have been traced back to people travelling from Wuhan as hundreds of millions of Chinese go home to celebrate the lunar new year.
The virus has already killed 17 people and infected nearly 600 in 13 provinces of mainland China. Two cases have been reported in Hong Kong, with authorities confirming on Thursday that the second victim is a 56-year-old man who travelled to Wuhan earlier this month.
FOREVER NAILED TO HISTORYS PILLAR OF SHAME
On Thursday, Chinese authorities also placed severe travel restrictions on Wuhan, suspending rail and air links out of the city as huge crowds tried to embark on the journey home for the lunar year.
Chinas Communist party has warned that anyone who covers up details about infections will be “forever nailed to historys pillar of shame”, partly because of the Sars epidemic in 2003 which flared up in China before spreading around the world, infecting 8,098 people and killing 774.
Months of systematic under-reporting of the Sars epidemic dragged Chinas reputation into the mire, prompting the World Health Organization to issue stinging criticism of Beijing.
But although the authorities actions this time appear to have been quicker, echoes of the SARS crisis persist.