BEIJING: China has passed "an extraordinary and historic test" with its handling of the coronavirus, President Xi Jinping said on Tuesday (Sep 8) at a triumphant awards ceremony for medical professionals decorated with bugle calls and applause.
The nation's propaganda machine has churned out praise for China's COVID-19 response, reframing the public health crisis as an example of the agility and organisation of the Communist leadership.
Xi doled out gold medals to four "heroes" from the medical field in front of hundreds of applauding delegates on Tuesday, all wearing face masks and strikingly large red flower pins.
"We have passed an extraordinary and historic test," Xi said, praising the country for a "heroic struggle" against the disease.
"We quickly achieved initial success in the people's war against the coronavirus. We are leading the world in economic recovery and in the fight against COVID-19."
China has come under intense global scrutiny over its response to the virus, with the United States and Australia leading accusations against Beijing that it covered up the origins and severity of the virus.
Defying charges from the United States and elsewhere that early failures enabled the coronavirus pandemic to spread more quickly, Xi said that China acted in an open and transparent manner throughout, and took decisive actions that saved lives.
"China has helped save the lives of tens of millions of people around the world with its practical actions, showing China's sincere desire to build a common future and community for humanity," Xi said.
Tuesday's lavish ceremony in the Great Hall of the People began with a minute's silence for those who lost their lives during the outbreak.
The four awardees included 83-year-old Zhong Nanshan – the country's most famous medical expert who emerged as the face of China's fight against the contagion.
He was awarded China's top national medal by Xi, who placed it around Zhong's neck.
"We will join hands with the ... world's medical workers to continue the fight in tracing the origins of the virus," said Zhong.
Beijing has insisted the source of the virus, which first emerged in the Chinese city of Wuhan late last year, is still unknown.
Three others were given the honorary title of "The People's Hero" – biochemical expert Chen Wei, the head of a hospital in Wuhan, and a 72-year-old expert in traditional Chinese medicine.
Some delegates were in tears during a series of speeches.
There was no mention however of whistleblower doctor Li Wenliang, who was among the first to be silenced for raising the alarm about the outbreak and later died from the disease.
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Local authorities in Wuhan, the city where the coronavirus was first identified, were accused of a cover-up that delayed the country's emergency response by at least two weeks.
But as infections spread throughout the world while slowing domestically, Beijing grew more assertive, resisting global investigations into the origins of the outbreak and saying its swift actions helped buy time for other countries to prepare.
Before the ceremony, state broadcaster CCTV showed a video montage of Wuhan at the peak of the outbreak set to rousing music, including images of medical staff in hazmat suits and crowded hospitals.
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According to official numbers there have been 4,634 deaths in China from COVID-19. The government has largely contained the outbreak through a serious of strict lockdowns and travel restrictions.
State media has stressed Xi's role in China's containment of the coronavirus.
The official Xinhua news agency said in a long special report on Tuesday that Xi has worked tirelessly since January and even suffered sleepless nights as he "shouldered the extremely difficult mission of fighting the epidemic".
Beijing has sought to focus on China's success at overcoming the virus, rather than its origins.
During a government-arranged tour of Wuhan last week, reporters were shown schools and tourist sites reopening, but were not allowed to report from the Huanan seafood market where the outbreak was first believed to have originated.
"The shifting narrative is aided by the government's success in containing the spread and it has been quite successful at home, though internationally it isn't as successful as it would hope," said Yanzhong Huang, senior fellow with the Council on Foreign Relations, a US think-tank.