How many people have actually died of COVID in China?

Xiao Yijiu/Xinhua via AP

China has currently locked down two cities in its effort to eliminate the spread of COVID prior to the start of the winter Olympics. The city of Xi’an was locked down last month after a surge of a couple hundred cases. And this week the city of Yuzhou (with 1 million people) was placed under a lockdown order because three cases were detected. Today China ordered a partial lockdown for Zhengzhou, another large city of 13 million after 11 cases were detected.

China claims that as a result of this zero COVID policy, their national death toll from the virus is 4,636, dramatically lower than anywhere else in the world. But as with everything being issued by the CCP, there’s reason to doubt these figures are remotely accurate. This week Forbes published a story suggesting the official figures were intentionally misleading.

The Chinese government reports a Covid death rate overall of 0.321 per 100,000 population. The U.S. Covid death rate is 248 per 100,000 population – 800 times higher.

Really? Much of the Western media has accepted these figures as valid, and pundits have pondered the gross failure (as it would seem) of American policies. Meanwhile, the Chinese authorities are triumphalist. As they see it, the success of their “zero covid” approach — marked by severe lockdowns for entire cities, travel bans, intensive contact tracing, military enforcement – simply demonstrates the superiority of their system.

One way to determine the actual death toll is to simply look at excess mortality, i.e. how many people died in a given year compared to other recent years. Both the NY Times and The Economist looked at data for countries around the world and found that almost everyone is probably underreporting COVID deaths, but China was in a class by itself:

The U.S. is apparently “guilty” of underreporting. According to the New York Times study, we probably undercount the prevalence of Covid deaths by about 17%. The Economist found a 7% discrepancy. They later increased their estimate of U.S. under-reporting to 30%.

China is another story. Its official statistics understate the Chinese Covid death rate by 17,000% (according to The Economist’s model).

In fact, based on excess mortality calculations, The Economist estimates that the true number of Covid deaths in Chinais not 4,636 – but something like 1.7 million. 

The Forbes story goes on to point out that Chinese data is mostly absent after the early months of the pandemic. It points to a list of major examinations of death rates, all of which noted that data for China was unavailable.

September 2021: A University of Washington survey, translated into the map reproduced here — shows that even 20 months into the pandemic China was not publishing data on excess mortality (half the country reported nothing at all, and the other half reported de minimis); China was the only country in the world at this point, other than Greenland and the former Spanish Sahara, that did not provide this data…

The missing data problem also emerges from an examination of the hotspot — the only hotspot for Covid in all of China — Wuhan, in Hubei province. According to China’s official statistics, Hubei has accounted for 97% of all Covid-related deaths in the country…

All of the reported deaths in Wuhan/Hubei occurred between Jan 1 and March 31 of 2020. After that, all reporting ceased.

The fact that China is not releasing excess death data (from which it knows a better estimate of COVID deaths can be estimated) is a pretty clear indication it’s hiding the numbers, not unlike what a certain NY governor did with nursing home deaths and for the same reason. China is trying to present itself as the leader in the pandemic, sending it’s shoddy vaccines abroad while relying on extensive testing and lockdowns at home. Evidence that its death toll was similar to other countries around the world would not be helpful in that PR effort so the data simply isn’t made available.

China isn’t the only country where the numbers are being underreported. Russia and India also are likely vastly underreporting the actual toll of the virus:

The official death toll is a “false figure,” according to David Spiegelhalter, a statistician at the University of Cambridge. “It’s much worse than that,” he told Newsweek…

He noted that this analysis demonstrates how some countries, including the U.S., the U.K. and Brazil, have official tallies of COVID-19 deaths that “roughly match” the number of excess deaths, while other nations have massive gaps.

Russia, he said, has reported about 235,000 deaths from COVID-19, but the number of excess deaths in the country is estimated to be as high as 850,000, indicating that many more people have likely died from the virus.

Another country with a large gap between its official count and estimated excess deaths is India. The country has reported more than 459,000 COVID-19 deaths, but excess death estimates vary between 1.2 million and 7.2 million.

So, officially, the US has the highest number of COVID deaths of any country in the world while China has some of the least, but in reality we’re probably behind several other countries and China’s numbers are likely far higher than they are admitting.