China’s Missing Million
The CCP’s chronic opacity means we will never know the country’s true Covid death toll.
Over the winter of 2022-23, one million Chinese people died from Covid-19—or so estimates now suggest. This figure would indicate that China experienced as many deaths from the virus in two months as the United States did in three years. That’s a difficult number to wrap one’s mind around—the idea that while the world has largely moved on from the pandemic (and the United States has recently ended the Covid-19 national emergency) Covid is actually in a virulent new phase and subject to a very different set of politics.
Grappling with China’s “missing million” involves, above all, contending with the realization that President Xi Jinping’s iron implementation of Zero-Covid was a failure of colossal proportions. Civil liberties were severely curtailed in unending lockdowns, and China’s economy harmed to the tune of billions of dollars, in the name of a “people’s war” against a “devil virus,” as per the president’s repeated exhortations. This war was to be furious and unrelenting. Then suddenly it was abandoned, after November’s popular protests (dubbed the White Paper Revolution) gave Xi bad dreams of insurrection. Those people whose lives had supposedly been spared by the lockdowns lost their lives anyway, in accelerated fashion.
For three years, Chinese society had been myopically focused on eradicating the virus. No clear exit strategy existed. China was not expected to emerge from Zero-Covid purgatory for the foreseeable future. Reopening came suddenly, with no preparation. This led to the biggest Covid-19 outbreak the world had ever seen: 250 million infections during the first twenty days of December alone. (As this figure was supplied by the chronically unreliable Communist Party, we may wish to revise it upward.)
Xi’s beloved lockdown policy had helped create a nation largely unprotected by natural immunity: “more vulnerable,” writes academic Yanzhong Huang, “than almost any other population on Earth.” Poor natural immunity, low vaccination rates, the mid-winter cold—these were the ripe circumstances into which SARS-CoV-2 was suddenly released. Faced with none of the usual obstacles, the virus was able to tear through China. On the ground, reporters found chaotic scenes. No surge capacity measures had been implemented at hospitals, because no warnings had been given. Emergency rooms were overwhelmed, patients sprawled on floors, ambulances were turned away.
The unchecked spread of Covid augured a hotbed of new strains. Sure enough, Xu Wenbo—head of the virus control institute at the Chinese Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CCDC)—soon admitted that a worrying number of new Omicron sublineages had been detected. Xi Jinping’s policies had, effectively, created a genuine threat to the rest of the world. Happily, no extra-lethal strain has so far emerged from China’s enormous experimental cauldron. But within China, many were still dying. So how many? Is the million-strong estimate reliable?
In early December, The Economist modeled a peak of 45 million infections per day, producing an expected death toll of 680,000 if the virus were left unchecked. Within weeks, as The Economist added additional information to its model, this was scaled up to 1.5 million. Separate academic teams at universities in Shanghai, Hong Kong, and the United States all reached their own estimates of between 1 million and 1.6 million. And Wu Zunyou, the CCDC’s chief epidemiologist, said that 80% of the population (1.13 billion people) were infected in the period between December 7 and January 21. Wu’s own estimated case fatality ratio for the winter fell between 0.09% and 0.16%, giving us a total of one million deaths—at a minimum.
The toll may be even higher than these independent estimates. Unfortunately, we have no way of knowing. When the CCP exited Zero-Covid, its once-inescapable state testing infrastructure was largely abandoned. Those ubiquitous testing booths were closed, and the reporting of a self-test result became voluntary in most places. China’s hospitals swelled with the dying, but only in-patients who had taken a test and gained a positive result were registered as Covid-19 deaths. Deaths outside hospital did not count; in the early stages of reopening, hospital deaths involving no respiratory failure did not count either.
These were the means by which the Party would avoid the embarrassment of a truly astronomical fatality figure. And so we have no hope of a reliable statistic for the nation. In the unlikely event that some local governments have accurate numbers, they certainly have no incentive to provide these to the central authorities. And if the central authorities have accurate figures, there’s little chance they would publish them. No one wants to know. The entire three-year nightmare is being assigned to history: Covid-19, Zero-Covid, the chaos of reopening—all of it. Incredible as it may seem, my contacts in China tell me that people have already begun to forget.
In the face of this series of catastrophes—a years-long clampdown on civil liberties on a national scale, followed by a blistering Covid wave—the CCP has responded by… declaring victory. At a recent meeting, the Central Committee of the Communist Party announced: “China has achieved a major and decisive victory in its Covid-19 prevention and control since November 2022… China has created a miracle in human history.”
Whether or not the Chinese people believe in this historical miracle, it is indeed a country where a million excess fatalities can go unnoticed by a majority of the population. One reason for this is the vast size of the nation. Another reason is the paranoia that leads the Party to instinctively check and frustrate the flow of information, whether consequential or mundane. And another is the culture of lies that the CCP has always cultivated.
In terms of opacity, the CCP’s scope really is sweeping. There is, for instance, no nationwide figure for average home prices (a ploy by the CCP to avert a bubble) and no reliable estimate as to China’s true population (in 2017, for instance, a fresh 14 million citizens abruptly materialized in the official count). The net result of the data-juking is that the average Chinese citizen is grossly misinformed about events in China. This is true in the best of times, let alone during a crisis.
This chronic opacity presents problems for all of us. China is no longer a distant concern. In a globalized world, we’re all jostling together in a crowded room; it is almost as if we could reach out and touch people who live on the other side of the planet. And so mistakes that occur in China quickly become everyone else’s business. We learned this, very dramatically, in 2020—or should have.
Three years on, the CCP is the same catastrophic mix of secrecy, paranoia, huge power, and huge incompetence. There were many lessons that could have been learned from Covid—the need for transparency predominant among them. The CCP took in none of those. Instead, China is back to where it started with the first Covid wave: obfuscation and a death toll that we can only guess at.
Aaron Sarin is a freelance writer living in Sheffield, currently focusing on China and the CCP.
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a superb piece!!
Authoritarian regimes, i.e. regimes that control communication and the flow of information, go into a death spiral when they ignore or don't know the truth. (That is my theory and I am sticking to it!) As the CCP suppresses information unflattering to the CCP and China, in that order, I suspect the latter that nobody really knows the full impact of Covid on China. However, that does not mean that the CCP will loosen its control of China or that the next CCP leadership will any less authoritarian.