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China’s bid for Zero Covid: Economic pain, rights abuses and data manipulation

As the Beijing Winter Olympics approaches, with the announcement that tickets will not be sold due to the “grave and complicated situation of the COVID-19 pandemic”, China’s policy of Zero COVID has come under scrutiny, writes MedicalBrief. Harsh lockdowns of entire cities are causing economic problems, human rights abuses, and the claimed  manipulation of medical data.

In Forbes, George Calhoun of the Stevens Institute of Technology in the United States writes that surging Omicron variant has penetrated China’s firewall triggering the strictest countermeasures, including lockdowns of entire cities. Economic activity is impacted, and evidence of a slowdown is accumulating. Authorities are racing to stay ahead of the contagion. But CNN reported Jin Dongyan, a virologist at the University of Hong Kong, as saying that “local outbreaks are springing up one after another”.

An Associated Press story carried in ABC on 15 January described a sense of emergency: “More than 20 million people are under lockdown, many restricted to their homes amid concerns over supplies of food and other daily necessities. Factories have been closed, affecting supplies of computer chips and other products.”

Volkswagen has shut down two factories in Tianjin, and a lockdown was imposed on the 14 million people of the northern city of Xi’an on 23 December 2021. AP said the city of Zhuhai in the far south had suspended flights to Beijing and bus service with Guangzhou and had “barred residents from leaving without good reason and a negative COVID-19 test”.

“China has also banned dozens of overseas flights from Europe, Canada, the United States, Indonesia and elsewhere after passengers tested positive for the virus upon arrival,” AP said. Shanghai, China’s financial hub, had also suspended some travel links.


The New York Times writes that the Xiʼan government was “quick and resolute” in imposing a strict lockdown in late December when cases were on the rise. “But it was not prepared to provide food, medical care and other necessities to the cityʼs 13m residents, creating chaos and crises not seen since the country first locked down Wuhan in January 2020.”

“Chinaʼs early success in containing the pandemic through iron-fist, authoritarian policies emboldened its officials, seemingly giving them license to act with conviction and righteousness. Many officials now believe they must do everything within their power to ensure zero COVID infections, since it is the will of their top leader, Xi Jinping.

“For the officials, virus control comes first. The peopleʼs lives, well-being and dignity come much later.

“The government has the help of a vast army of community workers who carry out the policy with zeal, and hordes of online nationalists who attack anyone raising grievances or concerns. The tragedies in Xiʼan have prompted some Chinese people to question how those enforcing the quarantine rules can behave like this and to ask who holds ultimate responsibility.”

Chinese intellectuals are struck by how many officials and civilians, often driven by professional ambition or obedience, are willing to be the enablers of authoritarian policies, according to The New York Times.

“When the coronavirus emerged in Wuhan two years ago, it exposed the weaknesses in Chinaʼs authoritarian system. Now, with patients dying of non-COVID diseases, residents going hungry and officials pointing fingers, the lockdown in Xiʼan has shown how the countryʼs political apparatus has ossified, bringing a ruthlessness to its single-minded pursuit of a zero-COVID policy.

“There are reasons people in the system showed little compassion and few spoke up online. An emergency room doctor in eastern Anhui Province was sentenced to 15 months in prison for failing to follow pandemic control protocols by treating a patient with a fever last year, according to CCTV.

“A deputy director-level official at a government agency in Beijing lost his position last week after some social media users reported that an article he wrote about the lockdown in Xiʼan contained untruthful information.

“Since Wuhan, the Chinese internet has devolved into a parochial platform for nationalists to praise China, the government and the Communist Party. No dissent or criticism is tolerated, with online grievances attacked for providing ammunition for hostile foreign media.

“The social media platform RED censored a post by the daughter of the man who died of a heart attack because it ‘contained negative information about the society’, according to a screenshot on her account.

“In Xiʼan, there is no author like Fang Fang writing her Wuhan lockdown diary, no citizen journalist like Chen Qiushi, Fang Bin or Zhang Zhan posting videos. The four of them have either been silenced, detained, disappeared or left dying in jail — sending a strong message to anyone who might dare to speak out about Xiʼan.”

The New York Times adds that the only widely circulated, in-depth article about the Xiʼan lockdown was written by the former journalist Zhang Wenmin, a Xiʼan resident known by her pen name, Jiang Xue. Her article has since been deleted, and state security officers have warned her not to speak further on the matter, according to a person close to her. Some social media users called her garbage that should be taken out.

A few Chinese publications that had written excellent investigative articles out of Wuhan didnʼt send reporters to Xiʼan because they couldnʼt secure passes to walk freely under lockdown, according to people familiar with the situation.


In his Forbes analysis , Calhoun, a teaching professor and quantitative finance programme director at the Stevens Institute, argues that Chinese COVID data is plagued by puzzling gaps and anomalies.

Some researchers have tried to interpolate the missing information by using various “advanced” statistical techniques – the stylish label is “machine learning”, Calhoun says. Notably, The Economist has developed and published a machine learning (ML) model based on “121 different indicators for over 200 distinct countries and territories”.

ML techniques are useful in detecting hidden patterns. but can also produce results which may be hard to interpret or explain. Critics (especially in China) have seized on this point to reject any and all “interpolated” data, and any hypotheses or conclusions based on such.

Calhoun says, however, that The Economist’s model is sound, “as far as it goes”, and could be much improved if the authorities in Beijing were to make data more readily available from China.

“Nevertheless, to avoid these concerns about ML interpretability, in this column I will focus on conclusions that can be based strictly on the data officially reported by the Chinese government. Even sticking with this uncontested source, however, obvious problems emerge. In some cases, the data is incomplete. In others, it is highly implausible. And some of what is reported cannot possibly be true.”


Information from China on COVID-related matters is often simply unavailable, writes Calhoun for Forbes. For example, China does not report any figures for excess mortality, which is a standard metric that the United Nations calls the ‘preferred measure’ for assessing the impact of the disease on a given population.

Scientific studies of COVID mortality are forced to leave China out of consideration. China in fact systematically refuses to cooperate with almost all requests for COVID-related data from international organisations and scientific researchers. The Economist’s study comes with a caveat: “The Chinese Centres for Disease Control did not respond to our requests.”

Lack of cooperation is not necessarily incriminating, but it is very problematic. China’s data-embargo has compromised the inquiry into the origins and evolution of the pandemic, and it is now obstructing our understanding of the effectiveness of alternative countermeasures.


According to Calhoun, some of the official data that Chinese authorities do choose to make available is “very strange”.

“One might wonder how China can claim a COVID mortality rate 30 times lower than Korea’s, 50 times lower than Singapore’s or 73 times lower than New Zealand’s (since April 2020)? These are countries with strict containment policies, highly secure borders, strong public health infrastructure, and high vaccination rates.

“Still, it is true that no country has gone quite as far as China has, locking down cities, banning all travel, welding people shut into their houses, setting up mass quarantine camps, jailing workers for for failing to wear masks etc. Perhaps, say China’s defenders, it shows that Beijing’s extreme policies actually do work better than merely very strict ones. Perhaps. But is this the most likely explanation? That leads us to a more serious problem with the data.”


“There are at least two ‘smoking guns’ sitting in plain sight, based on the official figures published by Beijing – unexplained discrepancies that point to the apparent manipulation, suppression, and even falsification of the data relating to COVID mortality in China.

Smoking gun #1: The missing deaths

“Of all the ‘gaps’ in the official data coming out of China, the most damning is the complete cessation of all reported COVID mortality in Mainland China after April 2020 – despite the continuing spread of the infection, and despite tens of thousands of reported cases of COVID infection.

“Prior to April 2020, COVID was raging in Wuhan/Hubei, according to official statistics, with an unusually high case fatality rate (CFR) of 5.7% – three times higher than the CFR for the rest of the world. Note that Hong Kong, which also follows very strict containment protocols, shows a CFR of 1.6% – very close to the world average of 1.8%. The US rate is 1.3%.”

Calhoun writes in Forbes that after April 2020, official COVID mortality figures in mainland China dropped to zero: “This is beyond implausible. Most of the 22,000-plus cases officially reported in mainland China after April 2020 occurred prior to the introduction of vaccines or treatment.

Here’s the key point, he continues: China’s Zero-COVID policy may contain the spread of the disease – but it would have no effect on the mortality rate of individuals who do become infected. In short, Beijing’s official 0.0% case fatality rate despite tens of thousands of COVID cases in the last 20 months is a medical impossibility. It is clear that the data is being suppressed.

Smoking gun #2: The deaths that are NOT missing

China does report the crude death rate for the entire population , which is available from sources such as the World Bankand the United Nations, Calhoun continues in Forbes.

“In the decade up to 2018, China’s crude death rate was increasing slowly, reflecting an aging population. (The global death rate was continuing its overall decline, with negative annual increases since 1950.)

“In 2019, China’s increase in the crude death rate (deaths per 1,000 population) took a huge jump above the previous trend line, according to UN data. Further anomalous increases occurred in 2020 and 2021. The rate of increase in China’s death rate accelerated by a factor of six times from 2019 to 2021 compared to the previous decade.

“In absolute numbers of deaths, the sharp inflection in China added almost one million ‘surplus’ deaths above the trend line. The bottom line: some sort of public health crisis has taken place in China in the last few years. People are dying at an accelerated rate.”

Calhoun’s summation in Forbes

Zero-COVID only works if the numbers work. If the numbers can’t be trusted, the policy is at risk. The numbers cannot be trusted, Calhoun concludes in the Forbes article.

In this column, we have looked at two inconvenient facts based entirely on official Beijing figures.

Tens of thousands of officially reported COVID cases throughout China (since April 2020) that have not resulted in a single death attributed to COVID? This is not possible, and not believable. China’s countermeasures, however extreme, have no effect on mortality once someone is infected.

A million deaths in China above the long-term trend line in the last three years? It is clear that there is an (unexplained) public health catastrophe taking place. Is it COVID? Maybe the better question is: What else could it be?

* This is how George Calhoun describes his career since 2003: I joined Stevens Institute of Technology, where I created and oversee a number of programmes in Quantitative Finance and related fields. I am the Executive Director of the Hanlon Financial Systems Research Centre at Stevens. I am also the co-Principal Investigator for a recently awarded planning grant from the National Science Foundation to create an Industry/University Cooperative Research Centre focused on financial sciences and technologies. I am the author of several books on wireless technology, and my new book is Price & Value: A guide to equity market valuation metrics, to published this year by Springer-Apress. 


Forbes story – China’s Manipulation Of COVID Data: The Two ‘Smoking Guns’ (Restricted access)


See also from the MedicalBrief archives


Declassified US report on origins of COVID is rejected by China as ‘unscientific’


Wuhan scientists planned to release coronavirus into bat caves: Leaked papers


COVID-19 Wuhan lab escape theory gets a second look


Biden shuts down US State efforts to find a Wuhan lab leak




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