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Why Can’t We Trust China’s Official Data?

China cooks data. It’s not something new, but many people still quote China’s official data, as if it were credible. In recent media coverage on the coronavirus, there was no lack of articles praising China’s handling of the virus or asserting that China is a global leader for containing the virus. They are based on the belief that the data that the Chinese government reported is true, but it is not. Quoting unreliable data from Chinese authorities can lead to wrong conclusions, mislead the public and policymakers, and assist Beijing in achieving its agenda.

The table below shows the top five countries, ranked by number of SARS cases, from November 2002 to July 2003.

Figures are copied from the Wikipedia page for the entry, “Severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS).” The data source is WHO. [1]

China, as the origin of the SARS outbreak, shows the lowest fatality rate of 6.6 percent among the most infected countries. All of the other four countries or regions, which had a more advanced health care system and medical technologies at the time, had double digit fatality rates. This contradicts common sense, and China never gave an explanation.

Mr. Jiang Yanyong, the Chinese physician who publicized China’s SARS cover-up, told the Wall Street Journal that “there were some 60 SARS cases in a single medical ward at the No. 309 hospital (in Beijing).” At the time, the Chinese Health Minister, Zhang Wenkang, announced in a TV report that there were only 12 SARS patients in the city of Beijing. [2]

Retelling the stories of the SARS cover-up is to remind us what kind of regime we are dealing with. Without freedom of speech, an independent media, and the rule of law, nothing prevents the Chinese Communist Party from lying to its own people and to the world.

As the coronavirus epidemic continues to worsen, people have cast serious doubts about the validity the figures reported by the Chinese government. British scientific advisers told Prime Minister Boris Johnson that “China’s officially declared statistics on the number of cases of coronavirus could be ‘downplayed by a factor of 15 to 40 times.’” [3] Wuhan local residents counted that, between March 23 and April 5, seven large funeral homes in the city had been handing out the cremated remains of about 500 people to their families every day. That means an estimated 42,000 urns were given out during that time period, a figure more than ten times higher than the official claim of 2,500 deaths in Wuhan before and during the lockdown. [4]

One has to understand the consequences of lending credit to numbers that the Chinese government hands out.

It may lead to wrong conclusions and wrong actions. A March 27 CNBC article, titled “Italy’s Coronavirus Death Toll Is More than Double China’s — This Might Be Why.” The article praised China’s extreme measure of locking down Wuhan city with 11 million people, and said that it “appears to have had a positive effect.” [5] However, if the real number of cases in China is 15 to 40 times higher and the total death toll in Wuhan is above 40,000, the author may have to revisit his conclusion, as we may not have a Chinese success story. The draconian practices that restrict people’s movement by brutal force might not be something we should learn from. On the contrary, it is something we should avoid. Think about the response from government leaders who may be influenced by such articles when struggling with their own country’s strategy to contain the virus. Such decisions matter as human lives are at stake.

When the media give credit to China’s unreliable data, consciously or subconsciously, they are helping spread Beijing’s propaganda and they are shaping public opinion in a wrong direction. China’s economic growth figure is always a subject of investigation. In 2019, a Brookings Institution study found that “China’s economy is about 12 per cent smaller than official figures indicate and real growth overstated by about 2 percentage points annually in recent years.” [6] For decades, the media have been quoting Beijing’s official statistics without adding a caveat. They have created an illusion among policymakers, and lent Beijing the influence it does not deserve. The questionable covid-19 data has already won China a good name. “This is the first international crisis where China is actively taking a global leadership role and it stands in particular contrast to the US, which has disdained international cooperation and invested more political capital in criticizing China for its role in allowing the outbreak to spread,” CNBC quoted a Eurasia Group report. [7]

Ever since the outbreak, many western media, elites, and governments have bought into the lies of the Chinese regime. However, one country behaved decisively and distinctively from others. On January 22, one day before China locked down the city of Wuhan, North Korea closed its borders to all foreign tourists. It was the very first country that enacted a travel ban into and out of China.

Communists are masters of deception. The best person who easily sees through the lies of a Communist government is, perhaps, from another Communist government.

[1] World Health Organization, Summary of probable SARS cases with onset of illness from 1 November 2002 to 31 July 2003.
[2] Pottinger, Matthew. “Outraged Surgeon Forces China To Swallow a Dose of the Truth.” The Wall Street Journal, 22 April 2003.
[3] Cole, Harry and Owen, Glen. “Downing Street says China faces a ‘reckoning’ over their handling of coronavirus and risks becoming a ‘pariah state’ as Boris Johnson faces pressure to scrap the Huawei deal.”
Daily Mail, 28 March 2020.
[4] Chakraborty, Barnini. “Wuhan residents say coronavirus figures released by China don’t add up.” FOX News, 30 March 2020.
[5] Amaro, Silvia. “Italy’s coronavirus death toll is more than double China’s — this might be why.” CNBC, 29 March 2020.
[6] Wildau, Gabriel. “China’s economy is 12% smaller than official data say, study finds.” Financial Times, 6 March 2019.
[7] Tan, Huileng. “As China’s cases dwindle, Beijing strives to take the lead in the coronavirus crisis.” CNBC, 3 April, 2020.