China signaled Monday that it would postpone its most important political spectacle of the year, a sign of deepening anxiety within the ruling Communist Party about the threat posed by the coronavirus epidemic.
Chinese officials said the annual full meeting of the National People’s Congress, which typically takes place with pomp and pageantry in early March, could be delayed because of the outbreak — a highly unusual symbolic blow to a government that typically runs with regimented discipline.
The announcement underscored the party’s efforts to be seen as taking the crisis seriously, after the government’s slow initial response and its efforts to play down the danger drew public fury.
The epidemic, which has killed at least 1,770 people in China and severely hindered the country’s economy, has damaged the party’s credibility and quickly become one of the most serious threats to its rule in decades.
China’s leader, Xi Jinping, is scrambling to contain the virus, putting in place Mao-style social control measures across broad swaths of the country. But the government, worried that a sudden economic slump could undermine its grip on power, is also working to get vital industries back on track and reopen factories.
The annual meeting of the party-dominated congress is a cherished political tradition in which the party proudly showcases its governance model. It takes place in the imposing Great Hall of the People in Beijing, where Xi and other leaders, alongside nearly 3,000 delegates, lay out their agenda, issue the annual budget and pass major legislation.
The likely postponement of this year’s meeting suggests that the coronavirus crisis is far from over. Even in 2003, when China was battling the severe acute respiratory syndrome, or SARS, epidemic, the congress went ahead as usual.
“It’s a fairly extreme move,” said Jane Duckett, director of the Scottish Center for China Research at the University of Glasgow. “They certainly seem to be very, very worried.”
The committee that oversees the congress said it would vote next Monday on whether to delay the gathering. Xinhua, the official Chinese news agency, quoted a committee spokesman as saying that “to ensure that attention is entirely focused on preventing and controlling the epidemic, it is considered necessary to appropriately postpone” the congress.
Yet Duckett said it would be hard for Xi to win back trust. “When you’re in charge of everything and when things go wrong, you’re responsible,” she said.
On Monday, the government sought to reassure the public that it was making progress in containing the outbreak. Officials reported that the daily count of new coronavirus cases was 2,048 — a three-week low. Overall, the virus has sickened more than 70,000 people in China and several hundred in other countries.
Public health experts said the dip in new infections was probably a result of the government’s decision to impose travel restrictions in many cities, including Wuhan, the epicenter of the outbreak.
“The measures taken have been extraordinary, and we are seeing the effects,” said Raina MacIntyre, a senior biosecurity researcher at the University of New South Wales in Australia.
But experts caution that the epidemic is probably more severe than Chinese officials have described, noting that the government has a history of underreporting cases — whether inadvertently, intentionally or both.
China has been wary of allowing international experts to assist in the crisis. It has ignored offers of help from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in the United States, for example. And it did not allow an outside team of experts affiliated with the World Health Organization to visit until this week.
The WHO group began field inspections Monday, according to China’s state-run news media.
But in a sign of Beijing’s efforts to control information about the epidemic, the experts will not visit Hubei province, which is home to Wuhan and where the vast majority of deaths have occurred. They will be permitted to travel only to Beijing and the provinces of Sichuan and Guangdong, according to Chinese news media reports.
Chinese officials are working to persuade the public that the government is taking swift action. Much of the country remains in lockdown, with hundreds of millions of people facing hard limits on going outdoors.
On Monday, the legislature also signaled that it would consider new measures to regulate the trade and consumption of wildlife, which has been identified as a probable source of the outbreak.
The details of any proposed changes are not yet clear, but the goal is to end “the pernicious habit of eating wildlife,” according to a statement posted by the Standing Committee of the congress Monday. Xi has also called for limiting the trade.
Although the exact origin of the coronavirus is still under investigation, health officials and scientists say it spread outward from a wholesale market in Wuhan where vendors sold live wild animals from crowded stalls stacked in close quarters with meats and vegetables.
The challenge for Xi and party leaders is to show the public that they are responding to the anger and working effectively to contain the virus and prevent any future outbreaks, analysts said.
“There is a recognition that the central government and the top leadership needs to be seen as doing something more proactive than simply pinning the blame on Hubei and Wuhan governments,” said Steve Tsang, director of the China Institute at the School of Oriental and African Studies in London. “They want to show that the party is in charge, that people have been held to account, and now the central government is taking over.”