China has named former SARS firefighter Yin Li (尹力) the new Chinese Communist Party (CCP) leader of Beijing, as President Xi Jinping (習近平) begins recalibrating the “zero COVID” policy that has slowed the world’s second largest economy.
Yin, 60, replaces Cai Qi (蔡奇) as party secretary of the capital city of about 21 million people, Xinhua news agency reported on Sunday.
Cai, 66, became first Secretary of the CCP Secretariat overseeing ideology and day-to-day party affairs, after a twice-a-decade leadership reshuffle last month that the Chinese president used to consolidate power.
Since 2020, Yin has been party chief of Fujian Province, China’s closest province to Taiwan. Fujian is also regarded as a power base of Xi, who worked there from 1985 to 2002.
However, Yin is better known for his career in public health. He studied health management at the USSR Academy of Medical Sciences in Moscow from 1988 to 1993, and subsequently became a visiting fellow at the Harvard School of Public Health from 2002 to 2003, giving him experience in two nations now central to Xi’s foreign policy priorities.
Yin returned to China in 2003 as the SARS epidemic gripped the nation, helping shape the nation’s response as deputy director of the general office at the Chinese Ministry of Health, and attending meetings with then-Chinese premier Wen Jiabao (溫家寶) on the crisis.
He has also held leading roles at the WHO and China’s Food and Drug Administration (now the National Medical Products Administration).
Yin’s expertise could be a boon for Beijing, which logged 404 new COVID-19 cases for Sunday, the highest in more than a year. That surge could test China’s order last week to ease some of its strictest disease prevention controls, which have isolated the world’s second-largest economy, stoked public angst and weighed on growth.
The appointment of a public health technocrat into one of the party’s most prominent regional roles could also signal that Xi sees COVID-19 as a longer-term struggle.
While China loosened some rules on Friday, it remains unclear how the nation will emerge from the COVID-19 pandemic without experiencing an exit wave of infections that could threaten its hospital system and relatively low death toll.
The CCP has touted China’s 5,226 recorded COVID-19 deaths as a measure of its superior political system to the US, where more than 1 million have died from the virus.
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