Even in a country transparently reporting the incidence of disease, the number of diagnosed cases might not align with the true extent of infection. Serological studies in several countries have shown that true infection rates are higher than what diagnostic nasal-swab and spit tests suggested (a recent Chinese CDC report out of Wuhan suggests that actual case counts were ten times higher than what was initially reported). But U.S. intelligence assessments have also shown that the Chinese authorities deliberately undercounted cases.

Zhong’s research suggests a similar conclusion. Whereas officially reported Chinese COVID numbers reached their peak in mid-February and declined steadily from there, Zhong’s outbreak index declines at a much slower rate, showing that officials were still conveying their sense of urgency through the state-run press. As the officially reported number of cases plummeted, the People’s Daily used language that’s associated with higher levels of infection.

Although some amount of the underreporting can be attributed to officials acting at the local level, state-media articles also suggest that underreporting by higher-ups was most pronounced during regional spikes that followed the one centered in Wuhan. Beijing was placed under a lockdown order in June, well after the initial outbreak had been suppressed. Although official case counts remained low in the capital city, Zhong notes that the People’s Daily sharply emphasized the importance of the lockdown measures “in marked contrast to the numbers, which indicate only about a dozen new cases per day in a city with a population of over 20 million.”