BEIJING — China’s leader, Xi Jinping, summarily ousted two top Communist Party officials from the province at the center of the coronavirus epidemic on Thursday, exacting political punishment for the regional government’s handling of a crisis that seemed far from under control.
The reshuffling of the party leadership in the province, Hubei, and its capital, Wuhan, reflected an aggressive effort by Mr. Xi to contain not only the political and economic damage of the epidemic but also any simmering public anger among millions of people locked down now for more than three weeks.
The Communist Party replaced both officials with protégés of Mr. Xi who have extensive backgrounds in public security.
The moves, announced in terse statements in state news media, came as the number of deaths and infections skyrocketed by the highest amounts in any day so far. The rise, in part, reflected changes in the way infections in Hubei are counted, but the latest figures confirmed warnings that the true scale of the epidemic remains muddled.
“The personnel changes can be spun as Beijing finally taking decisive action and beginning the process of sheeting home responsibility for the crisis,” said Richard McGregor, a senior fellow at the Lowy Institute in Sydney, using a nautical idiom meaning to fix blame, “but they also reek a little of panic.”
Only the day before, Mr. Xi presided over a third emergency session of the country’s top political body, the Politburo Standing Committee, and declared that the government’s efforts were beginning to have “positive effects.”
“All regions and departments performed their duties actively and conscientiously,” Mr. Xi said, once again referring to the fight against the epidemic as a “people’s war.”
Mr. Xi’s reassuring remarks made the dismissals, like the rise in new cases and deaths, even more of a surprise.
In a separate move that underscored similar concerns, the government’s highest body, the State Council, announced that it had appointed another Xi protégé to take over the national office overseeing Hong Kong, which has been roiled by protests since last summer and by the coronavirus now.
The dismissal of a provincial party leader is rare, even in the increasingly centralized authoritarian system that Mr. Xi has built since coming to power in 2013. He has overseen a sweeping anticorruption campaign that has toppled scores of officials, but only two other top provincial-level leaders have been ousted during his tenure, both on charges of corruption.
The last, in 2017, was Sun Zhengcai, the party secretary of Chongqing, a provincial-level city, like Beijing. A high-flying politician once touted as a potential national leader, he was accused of “violations of discipline” and is now serving a life sentence in prison.
The night before getting sacked, Hubei’s provincial party secretary, Jiang Chaoliang, presided over a meeting of officials, obsequiously citing Mr. Xi’s “important speeches” as guidance for the region’s responses. He will be replaced by Ying Yong, who has served since 2017 as the mayor of Shanghai, China’s largest city.
Mr. Ying, who is 62, rose through the political ranks in Zhejiang Province, where Mr. Xi himself began his climb to power. Mr. Ying studied law and held a variety of positions in the judiciary and in the powerful Public Security Bureau, including ones overseeing antidrug and antiterrorism agencies.
Mr. Jiang, by contrast, was an economist and a former banker, who was only three years ago on the shortlist to take over China’s central bank.
Wuhan’s party secretary, Ma Guoqiang, was replaced by Wang Zhonglin, a counterpart in another regional capital, Jinan, in Shandong Provence. Mr. Ma had offered to resign, the city’s mayor said in January, but he had remained in his position until Thursday.
Mr. Wang served for 15 years in the Public Security Bureau in Shandong before rising through the party ranks.
Mr. Xi’s inclination to turn to officials with whom he is familiar is not surprising. Nor are their backgrounds in security affairs. Moving to install the officials now, even before the extent of the crisis is clear, underscored the challenge the epidemic has created for Mr. Xi and for his ambitions as the country’s most powerful leader since Mao Zedong.
Wu Qiang, an independent political analyst in Beijing, said in an interview that, “To cope with a crisis that may become more serious in the future, the first thing that they need is highly loyal people.”
At Wednesday’s meeting of the Politburo Standing Committee, Mr. Xi urged officials to do everything possible to improve the care of those sickened in Hubei. At the same time, he urged them to make sure that business returned to normal and that the government met its economic development goals for the year, according to an official summary of the meeting by Xinhua, the state-run news agency.
Those goals include his 2020 deadlines for eradicating extreme poverty and creating a “comprehensively well-off society.”
Mr. Xi once again called the epidemic a test of the government he has, after seven years in power, put in place.
That was “a pretty gutsy thing to say at a time when support for the system is likely at an all-time low because it failed to protect people’s lives,” Susan L. Shirk, chairwoman of the 21st Century China Center at the University of California, San Diego.
The epidemic has already shaken up the internal politics of the Communist Party unlike any other crisis in years. The next manifestation of that disruption is likely to be the annual meetings of the National People’s Congress and the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference, largely ceremonial events in which thousands of delegates converge in Beijing to endorse the party’s policy agenda for the coming year.
The two sessions, as they are called, are scheduled to begin in early March and now appear very much in doubt.
The epidemic has already provoked waves of fear, anguish and anger.
Popular fury boiled over with the death last week of Li Wenliang, an ophthalmologist in Wuhan who was punished by the authorities for warning his medical school classmates of a potential new contagion in late December.
Since then, the authorities have moved aggressively to squelch any protest that showed signs of gaining strength, while trying to contain the public health crisis.
Until now, Mr. Xi has resisted unusually public calls for heads to roll. The party had only moved against the party secretary and the director of Hubei’s provincial health commission, who were both replaced this week.
The dismissals of the provincial and city party chiefs reflected a move against functionaries of a higher political level. Both officials had presided over annual party congresses that went ahead in early January even as the epidemic set its tenacious roots in the city and began to spread.
Their dismissals were reported on CCTV’s nightly news program, but only after half an hour of other reports on efforts to fight the epidemic. That appeared to reflect a wariness of seeming to bow to public demands for accountability. The dismissals could also be an effort to deflect blame away from the central government.
The appointment overseeing Hong Kong reflected a similar hope of containing another huge challenge without making concessions to public opinion.
Xia Baolong, a former party secretary of Zhejiang Province, took over the cabinet-level position of director of the Hong Kong and Macau Affairs Office. He replaced Zhang Xiaoming, who will remain as a deputy.
Lau Siu-kai, a former Hong Kong official who is now vice chairman of an elite Beijing’s advisory body, the Chinese Association of Hong Kong and Macau Studies, said the appointment showed that the national government was committed to cracking down hard on any threat to China’s control over the semiautonomous territory.
“This coronavirus must make Beijing even more alert about Hong Kong’s internal hostile forces,” he said, “because they still want to use this pneumonia to arouse anti-mainland feelings and weaken the Hong Kong government.”
Keith Bradsher contributed reporting from Taipei, Taiwan. Claire Fu, Zoe Mou and Amber Wang contributed research from Beijing.