Chinese president Xi Jinping on Tuesday visited the virus-hit city of Wuhan to proclaim victory in the fight against the epidemic, as dissent continued to simmer among residents and commentators.
Xi said the spread of the deadly coronavirus epidemic had been "basically curbed" in central Hubei province and the provincial capital Wuhan.
"Initial success has been made in stabilizing the situation and turning the tide in Hubei and Wuhan," state news agency Xinhua quoted him as saying.
"The situation of coronavirus prevention in Hubei and Wuhan has shown positive changes and achieved phased results, initially realizing goals to stabilize and turn around the situation," Xi said.
As the president flew in, Wuhan closed the last of 14 temporary hospitals set up to cope with a huge surge in COVID-19 cases, as the health authorities reported just 19 new cases on Monday.
Xi was shown meeting with local officials, medical staff, and volunteers, wearing an N95 respirator and speaking with frontline medical workers and a patient by video.
Residents took to Twitter to give a behind-the-scenes look at a massive security and propaganda operation surrounding Xi's visit, posting photos of police officers in hazmat suits stationed on their balconies overlooking the president's route.
Some said the police were likely there to stop people heckling the president, as they did last week during a visit by vice premier Sun Chunlan.
"When #SunChunlan visited last time, #Wuhan citizens hailed "fake"," wrote Twitter user @jerome_coo. "When #XiJinping visited this time, #CCP arranged #police to prevent such an incident."
Others accused Xi of going to Wuhan when the greatest danger to his own health had passed, and "picking peaches," a phrase suggesting he was taking the credit for others' work.
Wuhan resident Liu Guoqiang said Xi had visited Leishenshan Hospital, before moving onto the Donghuyuan residential compound.
"General Secretary Xi Jinping flew into Wuhan to make an inspection today," Liu said. "He went to Leishenshan and a few other places to visit frontline medical staff, grassroots officials and People's Liberation Army soldiers and volunteers."
"It was all a big show to let us know that the head of state had arrived."
A resident surnamed Sun said local people were barred from leaving their homes during Xi's visit.
"They wouldn't let us go out, and there were sentry posts every few meters," Sun said. "Local residents had to shut their windows, and there were armed police guarding each home wherever he went."
Resident Su Yang said Xi's visit was largely a morale booster for those on the front line of the epidemic.
"I don't think it's really very meaningful," Su said.
'Many hate him'
A Wuhan teacher surnamed Zhou agreed, saying Xi had gone to "pick peaches," as social media users tweeted pictures of Sun Wukong the legendary Monkey King stealing peaches from Heaven.
"He's here to pick peaches, because it looks good to say that China has things under control as other countries are getting overwhelmed,"
he said. "[But] many people have had their lives ruined, and hate him."
But he added: "Some think that the fact that he came at all shows that the epidemic must be easing up."
Zhou said he has reliable information indicating that the actual death toll in Hubei was around 10 times greater than the official figure of around 3,000.
He said there have been large numbers of discharged patients who later went on to relapse.
A woman surnamed Zhao who has family in Wuhan said she had received a photo of a peach, but pointed out that the city is still in lockdown.
"My family is still there," Zhao said. "I'm completely speechless, what else is there to say?"
"I get annoyed if I see his name now."
Repeated calls to the Hubei provincial [ruling] Chinese Communist Party Committee, and to the Wuhan epidemic control command center rang unanswered on Tuesday.
As Xi's trip got under way, the Chinese Communist Party's propaganda department deleted an article about another coronavirus whistleblower, ER doctor Ai Fen, who was given a stern reprimand after sending information about the early stages of the outbreak to a group of doctors.
The 8,000-word article in People magazine titled "Whistleblower" said Ai had been silenced by her bosses after she took a photo of a patient's test results and circled the words "SARS coronavirus" in red.
She alerted colleagues to several cases of the virus, and eight of them were summoned by police for sharing the information. Among them was opthalmologist Li Wenliang who later died of COVID-19.
Meanwhile, two open letters to Xi Jinping dated late February and early March and penned by a retired professor from Beijing's Central Nationalities University hit out at China's system of government and the ruling party's handling of the epidemic.
The letters, signed by Zhao Shilin, called on the government to implement political reforms enabling "freedom, democracy, equality and the rule of law" to better deal with such crises in future.
Reported by Wong Siu-san, Sing Man, Fong Tak-ho and Tam Siu-yin for RFA's Cantonese Service, and by Gao Feng and Qiao Long for the Mandarin Service. Translated and edited by Luisetta Mudie.