Commentary on Political Economy

Tuesday 18 July 2023


China deletes deaths data that showed 73% jump when Covid curbs were lif­ted

One of China’s most pop­u­lous provinces has deleted mor­tal­ity data that offered an indic­a­tion of the heavy death toll from Beijing’s relax­a­tion of Covid-19 con­trols at the end of last year.

The stat­ist­ics repor­ted by Zheji­ang province last week showed that the num­ber of crema­tions in the wealthy coastal region dur­ing the first quarter of the year jumped 73 per cent from a year earlier, to 171,000.

The fig­ure was well above the 99,000 and 91,000 deaths repor­ted in the same period in 2022 and 2021 respect­ively. By Monday, with the stat­ist­ics attract­ing atten­tion on Chinese social media, Zheji­ang had pulled the inform­a­tion off­line.

Hos­pit­als and crem­at­ori­ums were inund­ated with Covid patients after Beijing reversed its pan­demic policy in Decem­ber, but Chinese offi­cials have not pub­lished detailed and accur­ate stat­ist­ics that would allow research­ers to bet­ter assess the deadly spread of the virus through the pop­u­la­tion.

For nearly two weeks in Decem­ber the coun­try repor­ted no Covid deaths in daily updates, even though bod­ies were piled up in hos­pit­als and crem­at­ori­ums.

In early Janu­ary the World Health Organ­iz­a­tion accused China of under­rep­res­ent­ing the sever­ity of its coronavirus out­break and the real num­ber of deaths. At the time, Chinese health offi­cials dis­missed con­cerns of under­re­port­ing, prom­ising to make pub­lic excess death data to “assess any pos­sible under­es­tim­a­tion”.

“For this Covid-19 wave, we have a team study­ing excess deaths, and we will provide this inform­a­tion to the pub­lic,” Wu Zun­you, chief epi­demi­olo­gist at the Chinese Cen­ter for Dis­ease Con­trol and Pre­ven­tion, said in late Decem­ber.

But seven months later China has not released any excess death data. Aside from rough estim­ates of annual deaths by the state plan­ning agency, the loc­al­level crema­tion data is China’s only pub­licly avail­able stat­istic for track­ing the num­ber of deaths in the coun­try. Nearly every­one who dies in urban areas is cremated because buri­als are banned.

But the num­ber of crema­tions has been sys­tem­at­ic­ally left off dozens of quarterly reports pub­lished by local and national civil affairs bur­eaus.

Willy Lam, senior fel­low at The Jamestown Found­a­tion, a think-tank, said: “On Decem­ber 8, Xi decided to lift all Covid con­trols with no pre­par­a­tion, one of the main reas­ons so many people died.”

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