China Brief

What to Make of China’s Coronavirus Figures

Given the unreliability of the official data, how can we judge the situation on the ground?

A Chinese man wears a protective mask as he runs on March 31 in Beijing.
A Chinese man wears a protective mask as he runs on March 31 in Beijing. Lintao Zhang/Getty Images

Welcome to Foreign Policy’s weekly China Brief. The highlights this week: A U.S. intelligence report says China’s official coronavirus figures are fake, China bars foreign nationals from entering the country, and President Xi Jinping takes off his face mask.

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How to Read China’s Coronavirus Numbers

A classified U.S. intelligence report has found that China’s coronavirus figures are false: that it underreported the number of confirmed cases and deaths. That is no surprise to anyone familiar with Chinese data. The question is this: How false is the data, and how deliberate is the concealment? There is a difference between numbers that are deliberately faked for the outside world and a state struggling—as all countries are—to gather information on a virus that is difficult to detect in many people.

It is likely that Beijing is deliberately underreporting the death toll in Wuhan, where the outbreak began, and the total number of cases across the country in February. Bad numbers in China are always underreported, especially when the national image is at stake, and China is now keen to play up its victory against the virus in contrast with the West’s failures. Still, it’s not as if the Chinese leadership has a secret set of books containing more accurate figures. They, too, are left struggling to figure out exactly what’s going within the vast country.

As a result, local officials have been left with an unsolvable problem. Chinese officials have been warned (link in Chinese) not to “hide cases for the sake of reporting zero.” But the leadership is also demanding close to zero new domestic cases. A series of purges before the pandemic has left officials on edge, and any local authorities unlucky enough to have an outbreak in their territory could be in grave political danger. Their response may be to conceal a local outbreak from the high-level authorities while using strict measures to contain it: reporting zero new cases while still quarantining neighborhoods or towns.

Proxy measures. Given the unreliability of the official data, how can we judge the situation in China? One method used by Chinese leaders themselves is to look at proxy data that is less deliberately distorted to get an estimate of the real numbers. For example, residents in Wuhan have estimated the true death toll there by the urns handed out to families, leading to guesses of 40,000 or more people dead.

Proxy approximations are rough at best: The urn estimates in Wuhan likely include anyone who died in the city during the two-month lockdown, not just deaths from COVID-19. And sometimes such guesses are just wrong, such as the claims that the loss of 21 million mobile phone subscribers indicates mass deaths. (Many people in China maintain multiple SIM cards, with old numbers regularly removed from the system.)

Observed behavior. Another way of working out what’s happening in China is to look at how the authorities are behaving, rather than what they’re saying. Right now, that’s good news: Life is returning to quasi-normality in most of China, and physical distancing measures have been severely reduced. Hospitals aren’t overrun, and medical staff are being withdrawn from Wuhan. But there have also been sudden reversals, such as cinemas being reopened and closed again within a day. My best guess: The authorities believe the trend lines in China but are scared of the prospect of a second wave, and they are cautious about public spaces as a result.


What We’re Following

Foreign visa ban. China barred all foreign nationals, regardless of visa status, from entering the country last week. Effectively, this means everyone: Even if you are married to a Chinese citizen, there is no route to permanent residency, let alone citizenship, except for a tiny number of people. Even after the lockdown ends, the move is likely to be used for a thorough revision of visas. Many of the 10-year tourist visas freely issued to U.S. citizens in better times could be canceled, and new work visas will likely be harder to obtain. The wave of anti-foreigner sentiment spreading through the country continues, especially in Beijing, with more businesses banning foreigners.

WHO is called out. World Health Organization advisor Bruce Aylward gave a boost to critics of the organization’s close relationship with China when he abruptly ended an interview to dodge a question about the status of Taiwan, which is excluded from WHO. Aylward praised China’s public health efforts after being taken on a guided tour of Wuhan in February. WHO says that it has reached out to Taiwan on several occasions, but its defensiveness over the issue has caused damage to its reputation.

Xi goes maskless. President Xi Jinping appeared in public without a face mask on Wednesday during a rural inspection tour in Zhejiang province, signaling to officials and the public his increased confidence in the success of virus control measures. Xi hasn’t been photographed in public without a mask for weeks, even wearing one when on video conference calls.

Counting new cases. After increased pressure from both global authorities and internal critics, China has begun to include asymptomatic cases of the coronavirus—those detected and under quarantine, at least —in its official data. The data may represent only a fraction of the true number of asymptomatic cases, which present one of the most difficult problems for controlling the virus.


Tech and Business

The U.N. embraces Tencent. The United Nations has decided to partner with the Chinese technology giant Tencent to hold online meetings for its 75th anniversary celebrations, despite the company’s role in state surveillance and censorship within China. The U.N. seems undeterred by the example of the African Union: When China built its headquarters, it allegedly bugged it and spied on the organization for five years.

Retail crash. While Chinese are now going out in greater numbers, especially to restaurants, retail business are still struggling. The perceived risk of public spaces is still high, leaving foot traffic at near zero inside malls and retail centers. It could be a final triumph for online retail: Even businesses that traditionally value face-to-face buying, such as gold and jade sellers, now face empty markets.

Is manufacturing up? China’s new purchasing manager index (PMI) numbers are good, indicating that manufacturing has increased—but that may not mean that much. PMI is measured on a month-to-month basis. The recovery from record low numbers in February was expected. Official unemployment, which is always undercounted, continues to rise as factories struggle with falling global orders.


What We’re Reading

“‘Loving Capitalism Disease’: Aids and Ideology in the People’s Republic of China, 1984-2000,” by Julian Gewirtz

Julian Gewirtz’s article on how China dealt with an earlier pandemic—HIV/AIDS—is now critical reading. It is especially illuminating on China’s interaction with the outside world and the way in which the disease was framed ideologically to allow practical solutions within a highly politicized system. As China attempts to cast the coronavirus as a foreign import rather than a domestic failure, such forces are likely to come into play again.

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That’s it for this week.

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James Palmer is a deputy editor at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @BeijingPalmer

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