We find that among China’s prefectural party secretaries those in office at a younger age were reluctant to impose lockdown policies in response to the supreme leaders’ calls to combat the 2003 SARS epidemic and the current COVID-19 pandemic. The promotion of these leaders is determined mainly by their jurisdictions’ GDP growth. Since lockdowns can suppress growth, younger leaders, who are believed to have greater career incentives, are more likely to downplay the virus by avoiding or minimizing lockdowns. We show that these patterns are not driven by leaders’ contemporaneous ages, their patronage networks, or their strategic responses to neighboring cities. Further exploration suggests that prefectural leaders incumbent during COVID-19 tended to choose loose lockdowns when observing that their counterparts had done so during SARS without getting punished. Our insight cautions policymakers against the potential negative impacts of politicians’ political career concerns on their implementation of COVID-19 suppression measures.