Oops!  Zhejiang Province lets the cat out of the bag on China’s recent spike of Covid 19 Deaths

Fudging socioeconomic data to make things appear better than they actually are in China has long been a standard practice of its government.  One could even say that manipulating data (操纵数据 [Cāozòng Shùjù]) regarding the economic and social conditions is in the DNA of this regime.  Thus, in his extremely insightful and still very useful read on the Chinese economy, CHINA’S GUARANTEED BUBBLE, brilliant Tsinghua University economist Zhu Ning devotes an entire chapter entitled “Voodoo Data” to debunking official Chinse Government economic statistics.   

Skepticism about these numbers extends to top Chinese leaders.  In a private conversation that became public, President Xi Jinping’s former Premier, Li Keqiang [https://www.theatlantic.com/china/archive/2013/10/want-to-understand-how-china-is-doing-dont-look-at-gdp/280202/], frankly declared that he did not trust the official GDP growth numbers.  Li added that he looked at figures for coal and electricity consumption to better gauge Chinese economic growth.  In his book, Zhu notes that the official Chinese unemployment rate in the early 2000’s remained remarkably stable, narrowly fluctuating around 4-5%, even during downturns, like the one that occurred in the 2008-2009 global financial crisis.  But hey, maybe this is a Chinese economy special characteristic [中国的经济特色 (Zhōngguó de Jīngìjì Tèsè)]!

It comes then as no surprise that the Chinese Government has almost certainly doctored the data on Covid 19 deaths, claiming that just 83,150 Chinese have died from the disease.  This very low figure raised eyebrows and was greeted skeptically outside of the People’s Republic.  Earlier this year, the NEW YORK TIMES [https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2023/02/15/world/asia/china-covid-death-estimates.html], with aid of a group leading scholars specializing in public health and demography, did a deep dive into China’s Covid numbers and possible deaths from the disease.  They concluded that the official Chinese Government Covid death figure grossly understated the actual number of fatalities from the pandemic.  The scholarly modeling in the article suggests that the number of people who died from Covid in China could range from 1.1 to 1.6 million, with many of these deaths coming after December 7, 2022, when the strict Covid Delta lockdown was finally lifted.     

Zhejiang Province, home to 5% of China’s population and one of its most economically dynamic provinces, reported an unusual spike in cremations registered during the first quarter of 2023.   The province reported a 70% rise in cremations [https://www.reuters.com/world/china/chinese-province-saw-cremations-jump-during-covid-surge-2023-07-18/],  which increased by 99,000 during the first quarter of this year compared to the same during the previous year.  While the provincial authorities did not state the cause of these increased death, the sudden surge in cremations and unexplained deaths is strongly indicative of a spike in Covid fatalities.  The Zhejiang cremation numbers also dovetail with numerous anecdotal reports on Chinese social of long lines of cars backed up at crematoriums at the end of 2022 and start of 2023.   

In any case, the province’s data was quickly taken down.  China has also failed to release data [https://www.cnn.com/2023/06/16/china/china-cremation-data-covid-19-intl-hnk/index.html] on the number of cremations that took place in last quarter of 2022, the first time in 10 years Ministry of Civic Affairs data on this matter has done that. 

Chinese Government insistence on putting out a ludicrously low official Covid death counts is rather puzzling.  Even if one assumes that 1.6 million Chinese died of Covid, China’s record in this area compares favorably to that of the US and other Western countries.  Taking the high-end estimate of Chinese Covid fatalities translates into 110 deaths per 100,000 people [https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2023/02/15/world/asia/china-covid-death-estimates.html]; the figure for America is shockingly high, at 337 per 100,000, while the figures for Italy, the UK, Spain, Germany, Israel, and Canada all exceed that of China.  

This contrast reflects China’s relative success in managing Covid during the first two years of the pandemic.  The combination of lockdowns and quarantines directed at areas marked by infection outbreaks, as well as mass testing, did keep death rates down and the virus in check without severely damaging the economy and upsetting the lives of ordinary people.  However, the extremely infectious Covid Omicron variant necessitated really draconian lockdowns, which shut down entire cities, including China’s economic powerhouse, Shanghai.  These measures devastated the Chinese economy, hitting the private sectors, especially small business in dining and retailing, particularly hard.  They also put severe fiscal burdens on already cash-strapped local governments, who bore the high costs of mass Covid testing and quarantining people infected with the disease.  All of that, coupled with the general impact of this extremely strict zero-Covid policy in making it very hard for people to get on with their lives, prompted a rare outburst of popular protest across China against the regime (protests regularly break out in China but they are all intensely localized).    

The regime’s abrupt cancellation of zero-Covid in the face of these protests is yet more evidence of the growing dysfunctionality of policy-making in China’s government.  The swiftness with which this was done precluded any effort to ramp up vaccination of the elderly [https://www.vox.com/future-perfect/23573171/zero-covid-china-lockdowns-future-pandemics-public-health]—when restrictions were lifted just 40% of Chinese above the age of 80, the individuals most vulnerable to Covid, had received their booster shots.  It also zero-Covid reversal also led to chaos in numerous Chinese hospitals [https://www.eastasiaforum.org/2023/02/11/chinas-unprepared-reopening/] in the first days of the reopening, as medical personnel, who had not been informed about the surprising policy shift, fell prey to the first wave of infections following the lifting of the lockdowns. 

All of this occurred against the backdrop of a 180 degree turn [https://www.voanews.com/a/china-trying-to-downplay-covid-threat-experts-say/6885257.html] in Chinese Government rhetoric regarding Covid.  During the fall 2022 lockdowns, officials strongly defended Covid restrictions, saying that the disease posed a mortal threat to the country and that people’s lives had to be defended at all costs.  After the December 2022 policy shift, Dr. Liang Wannian, the architect of zero-Covid approach declared, without citing any evidence to back up his claim, “The virus is much milder now.”  I think that the large numbers of Chinese who died of Covid during the first quarter of 2023 would beg to differ.  Hasn’t anyone told these people about the importance of being consistent in your messaging during crises like public health emergencies? 

I have no idea how effectively China will confront the next inevitable post-Covid pandemic.  But one thing I am certain of and willing to bet a month’s salary on is whatever official data China’s Government puts on it should be taken with a massive grain of salt.  

And now, while I’m on the subject of dubious data from China, a follow up on my last China post dealing with youth unemployment:

In an unusually public article [https://asia.nikkei.com/Economy/Chinese-professor-says-youth-jobless-rate-might-have-hit-46.5#:~:text=BEIJING%20(Reuters)%20%2D%2DAn%20unusually,negative%20portrayals%20of%20the%20economy] published on July 17th by the well-read and highly regarded Chinese financial magazine, CAIXIN, Peking University associate professor of economics, Zhang Dandan, estimates that the youth joblessness rate may be close to 50% (46.5%).  That is over twice as high as the official government rate of 21%.  Even if Zhang is somewhat off here—and her work has drawn criticism in Chinese social media—her findings would indicate the Chinese Government has yet again massaged the figures to make things look better than they actually are.  Bring on the voodoo data!  Shortly after Zhang’s article appeared, China’s regulator closed media accounts that posted “essays” it deemed to be “rumors.”  It also scrubbed social media video depicting poverty, claiming that some were “staged.”