BEIJING — China’s top leader, Xi Jinping, toured Wuhan, the city at the center of a now global epidemic, for the first time since the coronavirus outbreak began, hoping to demonstrate that his government was containing a crisis that has tarnished his image at home and abroad.
Wearing a blue mask, Mr. Xi stopped short of declaring victory, but his visit was clearly intended to send a powerful signal that the government believes the worst of the national emergency could soon be over in China — just as others countries are being struck by their own outbreaks. As if to echo the message, some cities, even in surrounding province of Hubei, announced plans to loosen some of the most onerous limits imposed on millions of people.
“Hubei and Wuhan have been the very most decisive battleground in this struggle to contain the epidemic,” Mr. Xi said in remarks reported by state media late Tuesday. “Through arduous efforts, there has been a promising turn in epidemic containment in Hubei and Wuhan, and we’ve achieved important interim results.”
Mr. Xi and other Communist Party officials have faced a torrent of criticism at home and abroad for the initial delays and obfuscation that hastened the virus’s spread. Now that the rate of infections is slowing, they have responded by portraying China as a trailblazer in the global effort to contain the coronavirus.
China’s counterattack in what Mr. Xi has called a “people’s war” has included harsh restrictions on travel and personal liberties that were widely questioned in the beginning but that other nations like Italy are now, reluctantly, choosing as well.
Mr. Xi warned against any premature inclination to ease the restrictions, saying that the tasks ahead remained “arduous and heavy.” “Show no slackening at all,” he said. “Take a tight, solid, detailed grasp of every part of prevention and control efforts.”
Mr. Xi flew into Wuhan in the morning and raced through several sites in the deeply traumatized city of 11 million people who have remained largely under lockdown for nearly seven weeks. The city and surrounding province of Hubei have accounted for all but 112 of the 3,136 deaths in mainland China.
Mr. Xi stopped at a community center, where he met with party volunteers on the sidewalk, and a hospital specially built in a matter of days in February to treat thousands of the epidemic’s victims, an achievement the government has repeatedly touted as evidence of its ability to marshal resources in a crisis. As he passed an apartment complex, Mr. Xi and other officials looked up to wave at residents who were still required, for the most part, to remain in their homes.
“He has to go,” Rong Jian, a writer about politics in Beijing, said of the visit, noting that Mr. Xi has said he was personally directing the government’s response. “If he does not go, what he calls personal command and personal leadership is of no practical significance.”
Mr. Xi went out of his way to express sympathy for the plight of the region’s residents and, unusually in a political system that rarely acknowledges mistakes, to express something close to contrition.
“After such long self-isolation, the public in Hubei, Wuhan and such hard-hit areas have some emotions to vent,” he said. “We must understand and show tolerance and acceptance, stepping up the intensity of our efforts in every respect.”
Mr. Xi’s tour dominated state media throughout the day, as it was surely intended to do, but it will take more than a propaganda campaign to ease the anguish and grief the epidemic has already caused and to repair the damage to the economy, which could take months to get back to normal.
Hundreds of millions of Chinese still live under quarantine-like restrictions, with travel limited between cities. Big factories are barely up and running, if at all, and millions of small businesses face uncertainty, if not ruin.
In recent days, the official numbers have offered some hope that the virtual siege could be easing.
The National Health Commission of China on Tuesday reported only 19 new coronavirus infections in the previous 24 hours, and 17 deaths. All but two of the new infections occurred in Wuhan; the other two involved people who contracted the virus abroad.
That meant that for a third day in a row, the virus has not spread outside of the outbreak’s source, according to the official accounting.
Even in Wuhan, the government has declared some neighborhoods free of new infections. The city has also closed the last of 14 temporary shelters it had opened in exhibition centers and sports stadiums to isolate thousands of those who had been infected, according to state media reports.
The Paper, a news site controlled by the Communist Party, published photographs of cavernous arenas filled with beds now empty of patients. The last two centers — holding patients with mild cases — could also close soon.
Qianjiang, a city in Hubei that is about 90 miles, or 150 kilometers, west of Wuhan, announced on Tuesday that it would begin lifting restrictions on its residents “in the very near future.” Residents in two other cities in the province, Huanggang and Yichang, posted photos and videos on social media showing open barbershops, springtime blossoms and workers taking down roadblocks, suggesting that life might return to normal.
Some complained, though, that they had encountered difficulties leaving their apartment complexes, despite assurances they could. Others still under lockdown angrily wondered when they too would be freed.
“It’s been so many days with no new infections here, do we healthy people not deserve to live too?” wrote one resident of a smaller city near Yichang. “Those who don’t die from getting infected by the virus will die from being trapped.”
Despite its aggressive efforts to censor public displays of discontent, the government has not been able to stifle the simmering anger that the epidemic has caused at home.
Only days before Mr. Xi’s visit, the senior-most government official on the ground in Wuhan was heckled as she led a delegation on a tour of a residential complex. “Fake! Everything is fake!” a resident shouted at the delegation, led by Sun Chunlan, a vice premier, who has spearheaded the national government’s response in Wuhan.
Until today, China’s premier, Li Keqiang, had been the highest-ranking leader to visit Wuhan, but that was nearly seven weeks ago, only days after the lockdown was put into place on Jan. 23. At the time, the death toll had just surpassed 100.
Mr. Xi has been a relatively remote figure during the crisis, delegating the daily meetings of a national task force to the premier. Mr. Xi has appeared more selectively and only in tightly controlled settings. He has met with foreign leaders, presided over a series of meetings of the Politburo Standing Committee and only twice ventured out into Beijing to tour hospitals and government offices.
In Wuhan, the authorities sent police officers into at least some apartment buildings to keep residents from their windows — presumably to avoid any repeat of the taunting that the earlier delegation encountered.
That did not stop it online, where one user on Weibo mocked Mr. Xi after a photograph appeared in state media showing him holding a videoconference with a patient and medical workers. “Coming all the way to video chat,” the user wrote. “Is the network in Beijing not working?
In other parts of town, though, residents who have been largely confined to their homes gleefully posted rare glimpses of Mr. Xi in videos taken through their windows. In one, Mr. Xi emerged from a small bus and waved at residents who shouted, “Wuhan, jia you,” a phrase that translates as “add oil” but is meant as an encouragement, like “Let’s go.”
One resident, Zhao Qian, welcomed the visit, saying it was a sign that the central leadership was paying close attention to the situation, but she still blamed the local officials for mismanaging the government response.
“In the beginning, they concealed the initial reports, which ended up affecting the lives of many people,” she said. Ms. Zhao gave birth in early January to a daughter with a congenital heart condition. Because of the focus on the coronavirus, her daughter was unable to get treatment for weeks. Her family is reeling from the financial effects of the extended lockdown.
“I haven’t been able to go to work, so I haven’t gotten paid,” she said. “For an ordinary family, it’s a lot of financial pressure.”
Reporting and research was contributed by Claire Fu, Tiffany May, Zoe Mou, Amy Qin and Li Yuan.