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Battling Coronavirus, China Signals Delay of Its Top Party Gathering

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 Mr. 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 SARS epidemic, the congress went ahead as usual.

“It’s a fairly extreme move,” said Jane Duckett, the director of the Scottish Center for China Research at the University of Glasgow. “They certainly seem to be very, very worried.”

  • Updated Feb. 10, 2020

    • What is a Coronavirus?
      It is a novel virus named for the crown-like spikes that protrude from its surface. The coronavirus can infect both animals and people, and can cause a range of respiratory illnesses from the common cold to more dangerous conditions like Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome, or SARS.
    • How contagious is the virus?
      According to preliminary research, it seems moderately infectious, similar to SARS, and is possibly transmitted through the air. Scientists have estimated that each infected person could spread it to somewhere between 1.5 and 3.5 people without effective containment measures.
    • How worried should I be?
      While the virus is a serious public health concern, the risk to most people outside China remains very low, and seasonal flu is a more immediate threat.
    • Who is working to contain the virus?
      World Health Organization officials have praised China’s aggressive response to the virus by closing transportation, schools and markets. This week, a team of experts from the W.H.O. arrived in Beijing to offer assistance.
    • What if I’m traveling?
      The United States and Australia are temporarily denying entry to noncitizens who recently traveled to China and several airlines have canceled flights.
    • How do I keep myself and others safe?
      Washing your hands frequently is the most important thing you can do, along with staying at home when you’re sick.

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 Ms. Duckett said it would be hard for Mr. 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. Over all, 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 W.H.O. group began field inspections on 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 on Monday. Mr. 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 Mr. 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, the 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.”

Steven Lee Myers and Sui-Lee Wee contributed reporting.

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