China Power | Politics | East Asia

Can China’s COVID-19 Statistics Be Trusted?

From GDP figures to coronavirus counts, China’s government has a long history of manipulating data for political gain.

By Scott N. Romaniuk and Tobias Burgers for
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Can China’s COVID-19 Statistics Be Trusted?

A member of a Chinese honor guard wears a face mask as he stands guard on Tiananmen Square in Beijing, Feb. 4, 2020.

Credit: AP Photo/Mark Schiefelbein

As the number of COVID-19 cases rises in countries around the world, China continues to report a reduction in cases, with hundreds of patients “cured” and discharged from hospitals daily, according to information disseminated by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Leading Chinese epidemiologist Zhong Nanshan, who discussed the potential for a second wave of the virus, highlighted the success of the “intervention mechanism invented by China.” According to Zhong, “The core points are the ‘four earlys:’ early prevention, early detection, early diagnosis, and early quarantine.”

The number of new cases reportedly dropped below 100 on March 6 and has consistently decreased. China also conveyed data indicating that the country had seen zero new local cases over the course of several days, saying all new cases were imported from abroad. China’s total active cases dropped approximately 91 percent from February 17 to March 22. While statistics show that China has done much to contain COVID-19, the data are prepared by Chinese Communist Party officials. Are these figures reliable? If not, what do they say about COVID-19 in China?

Given that China’s GDP data tend to be inflated, casting the illusion of impressive growth to Chinese citizens and observers around the world, the same manipulation could also apply to COVID-19 statistics. Economists at the University of Hong Kong and the University of Chicago calculated China’s economic growth independently and showed that Beijing’s numbers were swollen by roughly 1.7 percentage points, with more than 10 percent added to the country’s overall economic size. In addition, data shared and presented by the Chinese government is suffused with missing methodologies, data breaks and numerical peculiarities. This reaffirms the notion that statistical data from autocratic and dictatorships are often unreliable. China is no exception to this general line of reasoning.

In China, positive characterizations of the economy, military, labor force, “development aid,” housing, and so on are typically rewarded internally by a governance system that rewards positive news. At the same time, the fear of discipline has created a loop in which those at the bottom of the governance system – local leaders – seek to avoid negative developments and news. This was the case during the initial outbreak, where local leaders sought to curtail and limit much of the information and deny the existence of the new virus.

China’s early detection and warning system for outbreaks has basically proved a failure. This despite the country’s Center for Disease Control and Prevention (China CDC) system being touted as one of the best in the world, developed over many years and through trial and error with seminal cases such as “Asian Flu” (as a separate historic case that originated in China in 1957 and lasting until 1958), H5N1 in 1996, SARS in 2002, H1N1 in 2009, and H7N9 in 2012. Just one year ago, Gao Fu, director general of the China CDC, announced that he was “very confident that the SARS incident will not recur. This is due to our country’s well-built infectious disease surveillance network; we can block the virus when it appears.”

China’s government claims the system works and was effective in the case of COVID-19. From their perspective, atypical pneumonia cases were identified early and the Wuhan and Hubei CDCs collated and imparted the information to their superiors at the national CDC in December. Thus, China’s leadership was fully aware of the cases that emerged in Hubei. Zhang Jixian was praised and awarded by China for her role in reporting cases of the new virus, which enabled national authorities to pass critical data on to the World Health Organization (WHO).

But on the other end of the scale, COVID-19 whistleblower Li Wenliang garnered global attention after being reproached by various authorities for his role in the spread of “false rumors.” Li, who was forced by law enforcement authorities to sign a document promising not to continue his actions, died as a result of the disease he had warned people about. Li was not the only one; many other doctors and medical experts in Wuhan were reprimanded for their role in spreading information about the new coronavirus before it had been politically approved. Chinese officials originally dismissed the idea of COVID-19 case clusters and instead elected to acknowledge the existence of several infections. The central authorities received part of the blame for the cover-up from Wuhan mayor, Zhou Xianwang, who attested to the need for Beijing to approve data prior to any dissemination.

The Chinese authorities’ initial response to the news of what was happening within the country’s borders is indicative of a concern — turning to fear — that China’s economic performance would sustain a serious impact, perhaps even jeopardizing Xi Jinping’s leadership directly. Xi’s position is one that provides protection but also puts him in the crosshairs. As the supreme leader of the People’s Republic, Xi is ultimately responsible for events of this nature and their impacts on the state, though his vulnerability in this regard is tempered by his removal of term limits. Concomitantly, Xi will always be able to blame lower ranking members of the CCP for poor performances, including Wuhan’s mayor, Hubei Province Governor and Deputy Party Committee Secretary Wang Xiaodong, and chief epidemiologist for China’s CDC, Wu Zunyou.

Efforts to downplay the novel virus and its potential implications, including the difficult-to-contain damage to the regime’s political image, collided with concern, anxiety, and fear about the ramifications for public health and the possible spread of the virus to other regions of China and beyond. Failure to contain yet another new disease held the potential to seriously undermine China’s efforts to under Xi to achieve growth continuity and rise to great power status. China’s development, stability, and geopolitical interests and objective-seeking have coalesced to generate the increasing need to sustain its previous gains. As economic growth is the cornerstone to China’s strength as a country, both militarily and politically, data falsification and statistical fraud will likely remain constant features of all levels of governance within the country.

When SARS infections were initially detected, China under Jiang Zemin endeavored to conceal the outbreak’s severity until the efforts to do so were derailed by one of China’s leading doctors. A similar pattern unfolded with COVID-19. Having responded to the emergence of the as-yet unnamed disease on January 7, Xi’s first public statement did not follow for another two weeks, when on January 20, he underscored need to take the outbreak seriously.

China’s COVID-19 infection numbers are likely much higher than previously stated based on pictures, videos, and leaked documents indicating a much different picture. For example, a considerable drop in mobile phone usage in China is telling of a possible difference in official Chinese statistics of COVID-19 infections and deaths, and those who have actually contracted the virus. One might reasonably expect to see an increase in mobile phone and landline usage by citizens, especially in times of quarantine and lockdown, not a decrease. Yet in China mobile phone and landline usage decreased by over 21 million and 840,000 users, respectively. Meanwhile, the mortality rate in Italy (approximately 9 percent) suggests that the numbers (not including asymptomatic cases) in China are seriously misrepresented.

The situation in Italy and other countries brings another item of interest to the fore: virus “hotspots.” In China, the outbreak and epidemic centered on Wuhan. In the United States, the so-called hotspots so far include New York, California, and Washington. In Italy, the hotspots are, so far, Lombardy and Veneto. Transposing this to the regional level, the European Union (EU), approximately half the total area of China, shows multiple concentration points. Despite the peculiarity of the spread of the virus in China, regime efforts in that country have certainly done much to contain it, owing in part to the ability of a dictatorship to implement measures without much constraint. China, through its continuous “war footing” management, has achieved an appreciable suppression of COVID-19.

At the same time, China’s undeniable progress in combating the outbreak must be reconciled with recent efforts by the CCP to deflect blame for its handling of the virus, absolving China of the responsibility for virtually everything coronavirus-related (and even implicitly demanding praise and gratitude from the world for its response). Chinese officials have blamed the U.S. military as the origin of the pandemic, and current data insists that new cases are due to foreigners or returning travelers importing the virus to China.

The risk exists that incentives would develop within China to underreport, or even to ignore, a possible new outbreak, whether linked to imported cases or domestic cases. Local and regional leaders, as happened with the initial outbreak, could seek to hide new and emerging cases. After all, the government propaganda apparatus seems now to have concluded that China is winning its war against the virus and that it is time to restart the economic engine. In such a scenario, it is doubtful if a local or regional leader would have the incentive to report possible new cases. Why risk exposure and throwing sand into the soon-to-restarted machine? Finally, with China having embarked on a global goodwill and PR tour, seeking to absolve itself of responsibility, new cases of the virus would not fit into the governmental propaganda mantra and would actively counter its message that China, its high-tech healthcare approach, and its governance system are uniquely suited to combat the virus.

While China has made enormous gains in combating the virus, and seems to have managed to flatten the curve, the world should not automatically embrace the new numbers coming from the country. With a cautious note about China’s statistical unreliability in mind, we should continue to closely observe the country’s health situation and remain watchful of future developments.

Dr. Scott N. Romaniuk is a Postdoctoral Research Fellow in Security Studies at the China Institute, University of Alberta.

Dr. Tobias Burgers is a project assistant professor at the Cyber Civilization Research Center, Keio University, Tokyo, Japan.