Can China’s Covid News Be Trusted?

Originally published December 19, 2020

China has received abundant ridicule for its role in Covid-19, from its early negligence, to its influence over the World Health Organization, to its draconian measures to control the virus. Part of the negative perception in the West was an assumption that reporting on Covid cases and deaths within China was not to be trusted — just as the Chinese political system had failed to acknowledge the emergence of the virus, surely the government would use its extensive societal control to downplay the disease’s impacts within China.

Months later, however, the evidence suggests that China indeed succeeded in controlling the virus. While many advanced Western democracies continue to flounder, China is almost entirely open, with kids in school, families traveling, and economic growth returning to normal. This week, The Factual used 30 articles from 20 sources across the political spectrum to explore how China achieved this outcome, whether official data for China can be trusted, and what this apparent success portends.

Note: China’s case count is imperceptible in comparison to the U.S., EU, and UK counts. (U.S. population = 328 million; EU population = 446 million; UK population = 67 million; China population = 1.39 billion)
Source: Our World in Data

As Wuhan experienced the first severe urban outbreak of Covid-19, media attention focused on the dystopian elements of China’s response. Citizens were locked in their residences, drones played out public health warnings, and government entities assumed responsibility for the delivery of necessities to citizens. But these responses were part of one of the world’s most effective Covid-19 interventions.

On April 7, as case counts and deaths climbed around the world, China reported its first day without a Covid-19 fatality. By that point, Wuhan — the epicenter of the disease — had only reported two new cases in the prior week. The Chinese government, learning rapidly, exercised its societal control to avoid similar outbreaks in other cities. Today, China’s official statistics show a total of around 90,000 cases and less than 5,000 deaths. By contrast, the U.S. has officially registered 17 million cases, almost 190 times more than China, despite having just a quarter of China’s population.

Source: Financial Times

At the most extreme, China’s interventions involved intensive restrictions on the movement of citizens on as many as 750 million people. However, since the intense first weeks, the measures have seemed comparatively less extreme, relying mostly on the routine monitoring of citizens. These measures include “color-coded designations based on a person’s health status,” widespread testing, routine temperature taking, and careful monitoring of people entering the country — now seen as the primary source of most new cases in China. Mask wearing was compulsory, though such orders have largely been lifted now.

New cases are comprehensively attacked through a combination of testing, contact tracing, and quarantines. For example, in October in the port city of Qingdao, the emergence of a handful of new cases led local authorities to conduct over 9 million tests in the course of five days, ultimately identifying around a dozen cases. Similarly, a video emerged in Western media in November of a confrontation between workers in a Shanghai airport and hazmat-wearing government officials. It was later revealed that, upon learning of a potential case, 17,719 workers were tested to locate a single positive case.

While it’s easy to see China’s purported success in controlling the virus as solely the result of the government’s active measures, citizen compliance and appreciation for science and health messaging has also likely played a consequential role , as has the clarity and consistency of official messaging and pre-existing proclivities toward mask usage. There has not been similar skepticism toward virus mitigation efforts nor a politicization of the pandemic, as seen in Western democracies. High levels of compliance meshed with government action to bring about what is likely one of the fullest and fastest recoveries anywhere in the world.

Skepticism of China’s handling of Covid-19 has been consistent, and it’s no surprise that many also doubt the official tallies of cases and deaths. Already receiving flak as the origin of the virus and for a failure to contain its spread early, China has much to gain from positive press, meaning that “conquering” the virus would be the beginning of a much-needed win. But while this nominally gives China a motivation to underreport cases and deaths, and it by many accounts has much of the control needed to do so (consider China’s extensive censorship efforts early on), there is no evidence that it is hiding significant numbers of either — at least not at a magnitude that would alter its narrative of success.

Critics point to a number of choices and anecdotes to substantiate the claim that China is obfuscating the real extent of the virus within its borders. For example, China has altered its definition of a confirmed case numerous times over the course of the pandemic and made the choice not to include asymptomatic cases in the official tally, moves that some argue are aimed at limiting the official extent of the virus. However, others have pointed out that some of these redefinitions have resulted in case counts being revised upward as well as downward and that some changes in definition are expected, given the novelty of the virus. Furthermore, the decision to exclude asymptomatic cases, while perhaps counterintuitive, has been both ridiculed and defended by experts as a plausible epidemiological choice.

Similarly, the anecdotes used to suggest significantly worse outcomes in China do not hold up to scrutiny. For example, one such popular story from Wuhan suggested that crematoriums were distributing huge numbers of burial urns during the worst part of Wuhan’s outbreak, and extrapolations were made to suggest that many times more people were dying. Further scrutiny, however, suggests that such evidence is rather flimsy, and while we can’t be sure just how many people died in the worst days in Wuhan, there’s scant evidence to suggest that there’s been any coordinated coverup of a large number of cases and deaths.

Quite plainly, if China was trying to hold back more severe outbreaks or impacts, Chinese society would not be so obviously recovering, with 240 million students in school and 637 million Chinese travelling in the first week of October for the mid-autumn festival, not far behind the 782 million that travelled during the same period in 2019. Full flights, classrooms, and events returned fairly quickly to China, with authorities gathering that the risk was sufficiently low in many areas. And while China has first-rate censorship capabilities and enormous influence on the behavior of citizens, it lacks the ability to cover up or hide a serious crisis on the scale of Covid-19 outbreaks. People would be documenting, discussing, and sharing the events the same way they were able to in Wuhan at the onset of the pandemic — from watching out for family, friends, and neighbors, to recording videos of government officials, to noticing the construction of new Covid-specific hospitals. The Chinese government knows its strengths, but probably also its limitations, and seems to understand that containing the actual virus is far more beneficial and feasible than containing information about its spread.

Given what we know about the virus in China, the evidence suggests that the country really has Covid-19 under control, that the Chinese government has strategies that effectively and comprehensively keep it at bay, and that the reported numbers of cases and deaths are likely not hugely different from what has been officially reported. Western media has at times been distracted by China’s behavior in the first weeks of the pandemic, allowing those decisions to color or even discount what has happened since. A sober assessment now reveals heavy-handed but exceedingly effective management of the virus on a scale likely impossible anywhere else in the world.

Source: Science Magazine

While questions are still being asked about China’s early role in the virus’s spread, attention must also be paid to what this apparent success means for China. Economically, it has managed a rapid recovery, growing by 4.9% between July and September and profiting handsomely from a world stuck at home and dependent Chinese goods. In terms of global health, its success in managing the virus has allowed it to engage in vaccine diplomacy (rather than vaccine nationalism), helping develop and disseminate vaccines in close collaboration with other countries. And internally, some surveys show Chinese citizens indicating more faith in the Chinese government, especially in contrast to the dawdling responses seen elsewhere around the world. At least internally, China’s pandemic successes seem to be quickly outweighing the costs of its mistakes.

To assume that China has been similarly afflicted by the virus as other advanced countries and has simply hidden the truth would be to ignore the fundamental differences in pandemic response and government that many so keenly point out. All things considered, China’s experience with Covid-19 first reflects its weaknesses, in the hiding of the initial outbreak, but then demonstrates its strengths, through intense control and exacting management of risks. It turns out the truth might be rather boring: China has the capacity to implement effective physical restraints to stop the virus but probably not the ability to cover up huge numbers of Covid-related deaths. In short, the story adds up.

Originally published at https://blog.thefactual.com.

I'm an adjunct fellow at CSIS, a political analyst and writer for The Factual, and an aspiring author interested in subnational authoritarianism.