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Chinese health chief Ma Xiaowei steps down after steering nation through pandemic and defending strict zero-Covid

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Ma Xiaowei, China’s health minister who handled the country’s Covid-19 response, has stepped down as he nears official retirement age, to be succeeded by his top deputy, Lei Haichao, a prominent public health expert.

On Monday, the National Health Commission’s website showed deputy director Lei, 56, had been appointed Communist Party secretary of the NHC – a step before a formal directorship appointment.

Ma’s name was removed from the commission’s leadership page at the same time. In December he will turn 65, the retirement age for ministerial-ranked officials.

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Ma, who became NHC chief in March 2018, implemented President Xi Jinping’s “zero-Covid policy” during the country’s pandemic fight from 2020 to 2023.

“China’s anti-epidemic experience shows that having 1.4 billion people holding the line of defence is the greatest contribution to international anti-pandemic efforts,” Ma said in an interview with official media in December 2021.

He was key to mobilising thousands of Chinese doctors and nurses to help overstretched local medical staff during major outbreaks, including in Wuhan in 2020 and Shanghai in 2022.

Ma’s last public appearance was in March when he attended a video meeting of Shanghai Cooperation Organisation health ministers.

Lei Haichao was Ma Xiaowei’s top deputy. Photo: Xinhua

The new health chief, Lei, is a leading public health expert and has published numerous papers on the socioeconomic impact of chronic diseases in the country, China’s large medical equipment needs and national health spending trends.

Although a native of Shandong province in eastern China, Lei has spent most of his career in Beijing. He was transferred to China’s then health ministry to focus on making health policy in 2004 after nearly a decade at Beijing’s Centre for Disease Control and Prevention, where he had been deputy director of the CDC’s Institute of Health Economics and Social Medicine.

Lei visited Hong Kong twice last year, including a trip on behalf of Ma for a joint meeting of the mainland, Hong Kong and Macau health chiefs in December. During those talks, health cooperation agreements between the mainland and the two special administrative regions were renewed.

He also had an extensive visit to Hong Kong in March last year, leading a mainland health delegation to learn about the development of primary medical care in the city.

Lei served as a member of the World Health Organization’s Western Pacific region health research advisory committee from 2005 to 2008.

In 2020, two years after promotion to health chief of Beijing, he was promoted again to deputy director of the NHC, before becoming the commission’s deputy party chief in September 2023.

Lei is expected to be the key official pushing reform of China’s health system, which faces a massive deficit and is alleged to be plagued by corruption.

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Beijing’s top anti-corruption agency embarked on a major crackdown on corruption in the health industry last year, resulting in the detention of more than 200 hospital chiefs.

Tian Wei, former president of Beijing Jishuitan Hospital and a leading orthopaedist, was arrested by corruption investigators in March, making him the first academician from the prestigious Chinese Academy of Engineering to come under a corruption investigation.

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