China’s eastern Zhejiang Province saw a spike in cremations in the first quarter, official data showed. China observers believe the provincial data indicates that the actual COVID-19 death toll in the country could be much higher than what the leadership in Beijing had reported.
Due to Chinese authorities’ past record of underreporting infections and covering up information, it is difficult to assess the true scale of the current outbreak.
On July 13, the Zhejiang provincial department of civil affairs published data on its website, showing that cremations rose 72 percent in the first quarter of this year compared to the same period in 2022. Around 171,000 bodies were reportedly cremated during this period, compared to 99,000 and 93,000 in the first quarters of 2022 and 2021, respectively.
Soon after the data was published, it was taken down by authorities. Moreover, online discussions and related comments were also removed from various Chinese platforms.
On July 18, The Epoch Times searched the official website of China’s Ministry of Civil Affairs and found that it hasn’t released the cremation data for the last quarter of 2022 and the first quarter of 2023, as it had done every quarter since 2007. It’s unknown why Zhejiang released its cremation data.
CCP’s COVID Data Underreported
The Chinese Center for Disease Control and Prevention reported 5,272 COVID-related deaths on Jan. 8.
However, an official from China’s National Health Commission said at a press briefing on Jan. 14 that the number of COVID-related deaths nationwide was 59,938 from Dec. 7, 2022, to Jan. 12 this year.
The sudden lifting of the stringent lockdowns on Dec. 7 reportedly led to a new round of COVID-19 outbreaks across the country—starting from the end of 2022 to the first quarter of this year—due to a lack of preparedness, medical resources, and, most importantly, failure to warn the public.
“WHO still believes that deaths are heavily underreported from China,” said Dr. Michael Ryan, executive director of the World Health Organization’s Health Emergencies Program, on Jan. 11.
“None of the data [COVID-19 deaths] released by the CCP is reliable. But sometimes it has to release them, so it will release them later— when it thinks that the fake data are acceptable to the people. In fact, the general public does not believe it,” Hong Sheng (pseudonym), a Chinese lawyer, said in a recent interview with the Chinese language edition of The Epoch Times. He used an alias for fear of the regime’s retaliation.
Mr. Hong told the publication that since the CCP’s sudden relaxation of its draconian “zero-COVID” policy in early December last year, lawyers were required to wear masks when attending court hearings or meeting their clients in detention centers. He said the number of deaths will likely increase due to the recent outbreak.
U.S.-based China current affairs commentator Tang Jingyuan said that Zhejiang’s death toll could be underreported. In an interview on July 18, he told the publication that the province isn’t the worst hit by COVID-19.
“In cities like Beijing, Zhengzhou, and Xi’an, and in Guangdong Province, which are hard-hit by COVID, residents have witnessed cremations several times or even dozens of times more than in the normal periods,” Mr. Tang said.
“In fact, there is a high probability that this figure is the government’s shrunken and trimmed figure,” said Mr. Tang, “The communist regime controls information and data, which is part of its social stability maintenance.”
Following the abrupt lifting of the “zero-COVID” restrictions, hospitals around the country were overwhelmed, and many patients reportedly developed “white lung” symptoms—white patches seen in a CT scan indicating areas of inflammation in the lungs.
There have been reports about long queues in and out of funeral homes and crematories across China. Crematories operated around the clock and recruited more staffers. Families had to pay more or go to rural areas to have their deceased loved ones cremated more quickly.
Sean Lin, a former U.S. Army microbiologist and currently an assistant professor in the Biomedical Science Department at Feitian College in New York, agrees with Mr. Tang.
“The 171,000 cremations in Zhejiang Province in the first quarter are moderated data, showing only a small part of the actual situation. The number of deaths in the province’s cities, counties, and townships is also falsified to cover up the actual data,” said Mr. Lin.
He added that local governments won’t get as much financial support from the central authorities if they report the actual number of deaths.
Reuters reported in January that a doctor in a private hospital in Beijing saw a notice requiring that “doctors should ‘try not to’ write COVID-induced respiratory failure on death certificates.” Six other doctors in public hospitals across China told Reuters that they “received similar oral instructions discouraging them from attributing deaths to COVID.”
In February, the Chinese language edition of The Epoch Times obtained internal documents from several provinces—including the southwestern Guangxi region, northern Heilongjiang Province, and central Hebei Province—revealing that authorities require a stringent approval procedure for issuing COVID-related death certificates.
Ning Haizhong and Luo Ya contributed to this report.