Why China’s Claims Of Success Raise Eyebrows


Why China’s Claims Of Success Raise Eyebrows

China has reported no new deaths from coronavirus anywhere in the country, for the first time since the beginning of the outbreak. But as the BBC’s Robin Brant writes, there are lingering questions over how far these figures, and therefore China’s narrative on the outbreak, can be trusted.

For months now, every morning at 03:00, officials in China have put together the latest figures on the spread of the virus to share with the world. As of 7 April, it had recorded 81,740 cases and 3,331 deaths.

The country where the virus emerged has received praise for its handling of the crisis. World Health Organization Director General Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus hailed China for the “speed with which [it] detected the outbreak” and its “commitment to transparency”.

But despite those warm words from the WHO, there is considerable and persistent doubt about the official statistics and claims of success.

Last week, senior British government minister Michael Gove told the BBC “some of the reporting from China was not clear about the scale, the nature, the infectiousness of the virus”.

US President Donald Trump also said last week that the reported death toll and infections seemed “a little bit on the light side”. And for some time US lawmakers have accused China of under-reporting the scale of the outbreak.

As cases rise across the world – the US has already far outstripped reported Chinese cases and deaths – some appear to be looking to China for answers on how to “flatten the curve”.

But there is growing concern that China is not being entirely honest about the extent of its infections and deaths.

This mistrust is partly about history – and partly about a lack of clarity that inevitably breeds mistrust.

A history of secretive data

China has a bad reputation when it comes to providing official numbers that the world believes.

This is particularly true of data on its economy – the key gauge of progress for the country and the ruling Communist Party.

Unlike most countries, China’s quarterly GDP figures have long been regarded as more of a guide than an accurate reflection of its actual economic performance.

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Before this pandemic, the government was aiming for around 6% growth in 2020. For years the forecast has almost always been achieved, with virtually no margin of error.

But there are few economists outside China who take that as read. No comparable economy has numbers that deliver on this suspiciously consistent level.

Communist Party dominance sometimes depends on living up to forecasts or targets – even if they aren’t actually met – and, conversely, hiding the reality when it doesn’t fit the party’s stated aim.

Some provincial level officials have been publicly punished for filing faked GDP numbers.

Some estimates put China’s actual economic growth at half of the stated number. In the past, some independent analysis using provincial electricity-generating figures suggests a lower GDP than official figures.

If China can face constant accusations that it is opaque about something as significant as GDP, it is not a big step to think it would behave the same way with something as significant as Covid-19.


An early cover-up

Why China’s Claims Of Success Raise Eyebrows

In recent days, the most senior Communist Party official in Hubei, Ying Yong, urged officials in the province where it all began to “prevent omissions and concealment”.

We know this virus began circulating in Wuhan at the latest by December 2019. But it’s no secret that China did indeed conceal its existence, its extent and its severity in the early stages.

The mayor of Wuhan long ago admitted there was a lack of action between the start of January – when around 100 cases had been confirmed – and 23 January, when city-wide restrictions were enacted.

China reported the virus to the WHO on 31 December. But we also know that, around that time, a doctor who tried to warn his colleagues about an outbreak of a Sars-like virus was among a group visited by the police.

Dr Li Wenliang and other “whistleblowers” were silenced. Dr Li later died from Covid-19.

A few weeks ago – around the time President Xi Jinping made his first visit to Wuhan since the outbreak – there were no new confirmed cases of the virus in all of mainland China, except Hubei province.

Prof Ben Cowling of Hong Kong University’s School of Public Health told me he believes the numbers reported around that time were “an accurate representation of reports at the local level’.

But critics say the key word there is “reports”.

Why China’s Claims Of Success Raise Eyebrows


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