Why is China apparently lying about its citizens infected with and dying from the COVID-19? It is increasingly apparent that its numbers do not add up. As my AEI colleague Derek Scissors has pointed out, when you compare COVID-19 attributed deaths in South Korea and Singapore—both held up as models in responding to the pandemic—to Chinese provinces outside of Hubei, you get orders of magnitude fewer deaths after adjusting for population. Is it probable that the rest of China, with a greater proximity to Wuhan and a health system still more second world than first, somehow contained the virus more effectively than even the best cases elsewhere? If reports of stacks of burial urns in Wuhan are any indication, then, China is fudging the facts.
But again, why? The simplest answer with which to start is: Because Beijing can.
Absent medical and health professionals from outside the People’s Republic on the ground there and reporting accurately, the data is whatever Chinese officials say it is. In the absence of such data, sites in the United States and around the world are posting numbers given out by the Chinese. Reasonably enough, officials in this country as in others have kept their focus on stemming the pandemic domestically. Getting into a “he said, she said” dispute can be a distraction from dealing with the immediate problem at hand.
Still, that’s an opening the Chinese seem to be taking advantage of, with the working assumption being that if you repeat a lie enough, it will stick somewhere. Precisely because liberal democracies are open regimes, there are always domestic critics willing to hear how their own governments are ineffective—or worse. The Soviets understood how to take advantage of this dynamic, and there is no reason to believe that the information warfare instinct of Leninist parties is any less acute in the Chinese Communist Party. Quite the opposite, in fact. With the availability of social media that is global in reach, the Chinese are spending considerable sums utilizing this new tool to spread misinformation and disinformation.
Moreover, the Chinese probably believe that, even if their numbers are not fully accepted, history shows there will be little price to be paid for lying. From Mao’s Great Leap Forward to Tiananmen Square, and from the internment camps of the Uighurs to the crackdown in Hong Kong, China’s leaders have seen time and again that foreign leaders and businessmen will still want to do business with them regardless of the scale of the atrocity. In recent years, there has been an obvious change in how many in the West view China. But one has yet to see a fundamental reordering of relations with Beijing in Berlin, Paris or London despite that change. Even in the case of Washington, there is a question of just how far America will be willing to go in disengaging from the Chinese market.
China’s fibbing is also of course tied to the effort to put doubt in the air over the virus’ point of origin. If the U.S. or Italian numbers are greater, shouldn’t one suspect that the virus actually has spread more widely in these places precisely because that is where the pandemic started? One does not have to subscribe to conspiracy theories (such as the one that the virus was intentionally produced in the government-run bio-research lab in Wuhan) to see the advantage of China trying to distance itself from the start of the pandemic. Slow and disingenuous over the outbreak in Wuhan, they have been trying muddy the waters over the virus’ origins since.
Overlapping the desire to shift blame and look more successful in handling the virus is Beijing’s goal of preserving Chinese President Xi’s reputation as an effective leader. Although it is correct to see Xi Jinping as perhaps the most powerful PRC leader since Mao, or at least Deng Xiaoping, that power has come at the expense of the more typical consensus-style rule that preceded him. Xi has consolidated his sway not by accommodating his rivals but by squeezing them through intimidation and arrests in the guise of cleaning up the Party. Given how much corruption there was—and because it was an essential element in leading party members to be “loyal” to the existing regime—Xi’s anti-corruption effort has both increased his power by cowering or eliminating pockets of competitors within the Party and, at the same time, likely narrowed his base of support within the Party. As long as Xi is seen as being successful, there is little room to challenge his rule. Should that assessment change, however, it is not hard to imagine grudge-holding party members attempting to coalesce in an effort to challenge him. Given the mediocre performance of the Chinese economy and the problematic turn in U.S.-China relations—a turn not everyone in the Party thinks is wise—getting pinned for an ineffective response to the virus and the resulting deaths of thousands is certainly not something Xi at this moment wants.
In short, there are good reasons for China to lie. Ultimately, the question for the West is not whether they will get away with it; the facts will almost certainly become obvious in time. Rather, the question is, will Beijing pay any price for engaging in the lie and, in turn, should Xi himself face a counter-narrative from the West that is both accurate and aimed at the Chinese themselves.