Editor's Note: This article was originally published in Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting, January 20, 2021. Donate to FAIR here.
Several reports on China’s response to the Covid-19 pandemic came out late last year, based on what US outlets like CNN, the New York Times and ProPublica claimed to be leaked Chinese documents. Although these reports implied that China was responsible for how bad the pandemic has been because of its downplaying of numbers and censoring of critical information, these narratives are themselves misleading in several ways.
CNN (11/30/20) released “The Wuhan Files” in late November, announcing “a string of revelations contained within 117 pages of leaked documents from the Hubei Provincial Center for Disease Control and Prevention.” According to CNN:
Taken together, the documents amount to the most significant leak from inside China since the beginning of the pandemic and provide the first clear window into what local authorities knew internally and when.
However, though the documents provide no evidence of a deliberate attempt to obfuscate findings, they do reveal numerous inconsistencies in what authorities believed to be happening and what was revealed to the public.
This is not the first time Chinese information has been leaked. Earlier in 2020, Foreign Policy (5/12/20) reported on a leaked dataset of coronavirus cases and deaths from the Chinese military’s National University of Defense Technology, which indicated that the Chinese government’s internal information matched the Covid-19 numbers the government publicly posted online, corroborating multiple professional judgments that China’s reported numbers were reliable. Dr. Bruce Aylward—a Canadian medical expert with 30 years of experience combating polio, Ebola and other global health emergencies—concluded that he “didn’t see anything that suggested manipulation of numbers,” after leading a team of experts visiting China for the World Health Organization (New York Times, 3/4/20).
So, what are these “numerous inconsistencies”? Again, according to CNN:
The documents show a wide-range of data on two specific days, February 10 and March 7, that is often at odds with what officials said publicly at the time. This discrepancy was likely due to a combination of a highly dysfunctional reporting system and a recurrent instinct to suppress bad news, said analysts. These documents show the full extent of what officials knew, but chose not to spell out to the public.
Even though CNN claims that the Wuhan Files “provide no evidence of a deliberate attempt to obfuscate findings,” it’s still instructive to examine these inconsistencies on February 10 and March 7. On February 10, CNN notes that “Chinese authorities reported 2,478 new confirmed cases,” even though a confidential document in the Wuhan Files “list a total of 5,918 newly detected cases on February 10.” These were “never fully revealed at that time,” which CNN implies is due to “China’s accounting system” appearing to “downplay the severity of the outbreak.”
CNN is careful to note that the Chinese government wasn’t lying when it didn’t report all 5,918 newly detected cases, as it notes that the 5,918 figure is actually a total derived from a “variety of subcategories,” which include 2,345 “confirmed cases,” 1,772 “clinically diagnosed” cases and 1,796 “suspected cases.” and five who “tested positive.” (There were also five cases described as having “tested positive”; CNN does not specify how these differ from “confirmed cases,” which is how China described those who tested positive for a polymerase chain reaction [PCR] or genetic sequencing test.)
Apparently, the “inconsistencies” stem from Chinese officials taking a conservative approach in their daily reports of new coronavirus cases due to “strict and limiting criteria,” leading to “misleading figures” by omitting some subcategories:
That month, Hubei officials presented a daily number of “confirmed cases,” and then included later in their statements “suspected cases,” without specifying the number of seriously ill patients who had been diagnosed by doctors as being “clinically diagnosed.” Often in nationwide tolls, officials would give the daily new “confirmed” cases, and provide a running tally for the entire pandemic of “suspected cases,” also into which it seems the “clinically diagnosed” were added. This use of a broad “suspected case” tally effectively downplayed the severity of patients who doctors had seen and determined were infected, according to stringent criteria, experts said.
Certainly, without further context, it appears as if these announcements “downplayed” the number of China’s cases by treating as “suspected” what were really clinically confirmed cases, but merely being familiar with CNN’s own reporting about the outbreak is sufficient to dispel the notion. Just three days after these figures were presented, CNN (2/13/20) reported that health authorities in Hubei province (where Wuhan, the city where Covid-19 was first detected, is located) announced that “there had been nearly 15,000 new cases overnight—almost 10 times the number of cases announced the previous day.” What was the explanation behind this sudden and drastic increase in the number of reported cases? CNN explains that China had revised its methodology in reporting new cases to include “clinically diagnosed cases,” the very subcategory that had been omitted on February 10:
The government was quick to point out the outbreak didn’t suddenly get much worse; the authorities had simply changed the way they reported cases in order to allow more people to access treatment faster.
The total number of cases reported by China now includes “clinically diagnosed cases.” These are patients who demonstrate all the symptoms of Covid-19 but have either not been able to get a test or are believed to have falsely tested negative.
Coverup or clarifying?
Is revising how a country reports new Covid information an abnormal practice unique to China? Dr. Maria Van Kerkhove (Hindu, 4/18/20), a WHO epidemiologist commenting on China revising Wuhan’s Covid-19 death toll upwards by 1,290—adjusting its previously reported number of deaths from 2,579 to 3,869 on April 17—stated that China’s actions were “an attempt to leave no case undocumented.” She also stated that she anticipates that “many countries” are “going to be in a similar situation where they will have to go back and review records” to see if they caught all cases.
And indeed, in April, New York City (the primary source of infection around the US, after travelers from Europe infected them) revised its death toll by 3,778 in one day, bringing its previous total of 6,589 deaths to 10,367 (Politico, 4/14/20). Britain likewise added 2,142 fatalities on April 11, revising its death toll from 4,093 on April 4 to 6,235 (Wall Street Journal, 4/14/20).
Despite these revisions occurring within a week of each other, only China’s revisions were presented as a possible “coverup” (Guardian, 4/17/20). It is actually normal to revise the criteria for counting new cases and deaths during a pandemic, to incorporate new information and improved testing capacities in real time.
On February 21, when China again revised its methodology of counting cases to include more cases, not fewer, CNN (2/21/20) reported that Chinese officials cited improved testing capacity as the reason for doing so. Revising death tolls upwards and broadening case definitions to include more people are actions that contradict the Western media narrative of China trying to deceive the world with fake statistics that minimized the outbreak.
Chinese officials (Xinhua, 4/17/20) gave a detailed explanation behind its discrepancies when they revised the death toll upwards on April 17. They explained that overwhelmed medical facilities at the beginning of the outbreak caused them to miss cases; a rapid increase in designated hospitals for Covid-19 had left some medical institutions unconnected to the epidemic information network, which prevented them from reporting their data in time; and there were repetitions, mistakes and incomplete registration information among some deceased patients.
Keeping New York City and Britain’s revised death tolls in April as a frame of reference, CNN’s Wuhan Files reporting that China had only reported 2,986 deaths in Hubei province on March 7, while having a total of 3,456 deaths divided into subcategories of 2,675 confirmed deaths, 647 clinically diagnosed deaths and 126 suspected case deaths, does not seem like an egregious discrepancy.
The only examples offered of China underreporting deaths—as opposed to omitting subcategories—was on February 10, when China didn’t publicize the deaths of six healthcare workers, and on February 17, when it reported only 93 deaths in Hubei Province when the daily confirmed deaths was 196. But the size of those discrepancies is small enough to have been accounted for in future revisions, and the Wuhan Files account for these discrepancies primarily on local health officials being “reliant on flawed testing and reporting mechanisms,” not on official dishonesty.
Compared to what?
Disclaimers and qualifications aside, one cannot simply report numbers or approaches without putting them in a context that would be meaningful to the public. CNN’s Wuhan Files report omitted specific comparative figures like the ones cited above, even though it’s difficult to assess how competent China’s pandemic response was without any frame of reference. When Western media reports omit this necessary context, they imply that the appropriate benchmark to compare China’s response to is perfection, which it inevitably falls short of, allowing the creation of a narrative in which China’s pandemic response was especially (and suspiciously) incompetent and sluggish.
For example, the Wuhan Files mention a report from early March stating that the average time it took from the onset of symptoms to a confirmed diagnosis was 23.3 days, indicating that local officials were facing a “lumbering and unresponsive” IT network. Certainly, 23.3 days was a significant lag by early March, as the lag between onset symptoms and a positive test was four days in the US at the beginning of April (New York Times, 4/1/20).
But CNN citing professionals claiming that that delay would have made it hard to direct public measures is silly, considering that it had already cited the overwhelmingly successful results of the first 50 days of the pandemic (Science, 5/8/20). The Wuhan Files note that by March 7, “over 80% of the new confirmed cases diagnosed that day” were being recorded that same day, which was a significant improvement from earlier.
When compared to the US, where numerous reports (Washington Post, 3/30/20; New York Times, 3/10/20, 3/28/20; Wall Street Journal, 8/18/20) detail how the US’s failures to produce adequate testing kits and pursue aggressive testing until early March made it impossible to contain the outbreak—since it’s very difficult to stop a virus from infecting others without knowing where it is—the imperfections of China’s pandemic response seem grossly exaggerated. Notoriously, the Trump administration said that the US should slow down testing to avoid bad statistics, and even stripped the CDC of control over its own coronavirus data to a central database in Washington, which led the new Covid-19 hospital data system to be riddled with delays and inaccuracies as late as July (NPR, 7/31/20). Even when the daily growth in coronavirus cases appeared to be dropping at times, testing shortages threw the US coronavirus numbers into doubt (CNBC, 8/12/20).
When corporate media outlets report on the failures of US testing, they usually don’t go beyond comparing the US’s response with South Korea’s; if the US’s response were to be compared to China’s, the contrast would be even more embarrassing. China tests entire cities with millions of people, and implements swift lockdowns within days as soon as they detect even a single asymptomatic case. While it may be fair to criticize China for going against WHO guidelines by not including asymptomatic cases among its confirmed cases, this cannot be interpreted as a coverup, since China still records them in its own subcategory and quickly requires them to be under strict 14-day quarantine guidelines, with additional follow-up visits afterwards to make sure they are not spreading the virus (CGTN, 11/18/20).
An exceptional response
But if it’s unfair to compare China’s response with one of the world’s worst performers, the US, one can also compare China’s response to countries like Germany and South Korea—which are frequently praised by corporate media—along with India, the only country with a comparable population to China, to get a sense of how exceptional China’s response has been. Although international comparisons are difficult for a variety of reasons—including missing data from these countries early on—data on new cases per week and total deaths from Johns Hopkins University clearly shows that China outperforms all of them. Here is data on February 10 and March 7 from these countries, the dates the Wuhan Files emphasizes to make the argument that China was “downplaying” the pandemic, along with the current status of these countries.
Despite being the first country to deal with the novel coronavirus, China has the lowest new cases per day, and has fewer deaths than all of them except for South Korea. But when we recall that China’s population is approximately 27 times that of South Korea’s, it’s apparent that many more people are dying as a percentage of the population there than in China.
It’s difficult to present this data in a visual format, because the vast disparities between China and everyone else—especially the US—make such a rendering visually unhelpful:
But here is that same graph (which normalizes for population size) with the United States and Germany removed, to illustrate how even among countries that had relatively low rates of Covid infection, China was exceptional:
Although the Wuhan Files offers some vindication of China’s pandemic response by noting the difficulties it had being the first country to confront the virus, and how little knowledge of the virus China was operating with, it is hard for readers to grasp how well China has done without including other countries’ performance as a basis for comparison.
Even CNN’s defense of China’s initial pandemic response, noting that China “faced the same problems of accounting, testing and diagnosis that still haunt many Western democracies even now,” is misleading, because it suggests China’s initial response was as bad as Western democracies’ current responses. In reality, initial corporate media reporting noted that scientists had begun research with “unprecedented speed,” due to how quickly China sequenced and shared the SARS-CoV-2 genome (Washington Post, 1/24/20). The Lancet (3/7/20) criticized countries around the world for their “slow and insufficient” actions, and cited a WHO/China joint mission report describing China’s response as probably the most “ambitious, agile and aggressive disease containment effort in history,” making for a “striking contrast.” Dr. Bruce Aylward (Vox, 3/2/20) claims that the “key learning from China is speed—it’s all about the speed.”
Perhaps this is why CNN’s Wuhan Files, and another report from the New York Times co-published with ProPublica (12/19/20), based on supposedly leaked Chinese documents, focus on the repeatedly debunked myth of Dr. Li Wenliang and other supposed “whistleblower doctors.”
The Times/ProPublica claim to have obtained more than 3,200 directives and 1,800 memos from China’s internet regulator, the Cyberspace Administration of China, as well as internal files and computer code from Urun Big Data Services, a Chinese company. Unlike the Wuhan Files, it’s unclear how credible these documents are, since the Times and ProPublica don’t provide lengthy explanations for how they authenticated the documents. (They were provided by a hacker group called CCP Unmasked, which has provided unauthenticated documents before.) But assuming the Times/ProPublica documents are real, the report is still misleading in several ways when it describes how China’s censors “got to work suppressing the inconvenient news and reclaiming the narrative” of Li’s passing:
They ordered news websites not to issue push notifications alerting readers to his death. They told social platforms to gradually remove his name from trending topics pages. And they activated legions of fake online commenters to flood social sites with distracting chatter, stressing the need for discretion: “As commenters fight to guide public opinion, they must conceal their identity, avoid crude patriotism and sarcastic praise, and be sleek and silent in achieving results.”
While Li’s loss is a tragedy, he wasn’t a whistleblower, nor the first doctor to discover the Covid-19 outbreak, and he wasn’t even ahead of the Chinese government; international media were able to publish contemporaneous reports on the Covid-19 outbreak without relying on him as a source. On December 30, Dr. Ai Fen circled the word “SARS” on a report containing a false positive for the 2003 coronavirus and sent it to a former medical school classmate, which was shared until it reached Li. He shared the picture in a private WeChat group on December 30 as well, but he didn’t consider himself a whistleblower, and asked the group not to make it public before it was leaked on December 31. He and his colleagues were brought in for questioning by the police, and were reprimanded for spreading rumors on January 3 before being released. This might be why the Times/ProPublica avoid calling him a “whistleblower,” as many Western media reports did previously.
Dr. Zhang Jixian was the first doctor to discover the Covid-19 outbreak, and she wasn’t a whistleblower either, because she followed established protocol by reporting an unfamiliar respiratory illness to her hospital’s disease control department on December 27. This is why Dr. Zhang was never punished, but rewarded for her contribution. Her report led to an investigation and resulted in an announcement by the Wuhan Municipal Health Commission on December 30, and a media statement on December 31. This is why various foreign news outlets (e.g., Reuters, 12/31/19; AP, 12/31/19) reported on this “pneumonia outbreak,” and how institutions like the WHO (12/31/19) and the University of Minnesota’s Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy (12/31/19) received this supposedly “secret” information in real time.
This is public knowledge, and is probably known by the Times and ProPublica, since they studiously avoid calling Li the “first” doctor to report Covid-19’s existence, and instead refer to him merely as “a doctor who had warned about a strange new viral outbreak.” The Times/ProPublica link to an early Times report last year (2/7/20) also only describes Li as “among the first to warn about the coronavirus outbreak in late December,” which suggests that they are aware that someone else had already reported Covid-19 to health authorities before Li’s information was leaked. Yet their report and a search on both their websites for Zhang’s name turns up nothing, suggesting that they are burying the real story of how Covid-19 was discovered and reported, which is ironic for a report decrying Chinese censorship.
In fact, a Nexis search for Zhang Jixian’s name from January 1, 2020, to December 19, 2020, from the Associated Press, New York Times, LA Times, Wall Street Journal, CNN, MSNBC, NBC News, ABC News, CBS News and Fox News return no results. To be fair, Nexis doesn’t catch all reports, but even after searching on Google and outlets’ websites, it’s clear that the biggest news outlets in the country are themselves omitting critical information that contradicts their false narrative of a Chinese government coverup.
Although the Associated Press failed to report on Zhang’s story, it has two press releases on its website from CGTN (4/13/20, 4/13/20)—a Chinese state media outlet—that mention her role in informing the world of Covid-19. Fox News (3/13/20, 4/16/20) is the only outlet above that briefly reported Zhang’s role in two reports that present baseless speculation, relying on anonymous sources, about the evidence-free lab leak theory, and about the WHO collaborating with China to conceal Covid information. The latter piece misleadingly presents a retroactive tracing of the first Covid-19 patient in China’s Hubei province to November 17, 2019 as evidence of a Chinese coverup.
The Washington Post (whose data is no longer included by Nexis) has only mentioned Zhang twice, once in a factcheck (5/20/20) debunking President Trump’s misleading letter to the WHO (which cites Zhang), and the other in an article (2/24/20) that shares the same talking points as CNN’s Wuhan Files report. A search for Li’s name on the Post‘s website, meanwhile, returns 81 results.
Information against infection
One question ignored by the Times/ProPublica report, and countless other stories from Western media outlets condemning how local officials in Hubei province handled Li and his colleagues (for which the Chinese government has issued an apology and fired local government officials), is whether sharing Li’s mistaken information would have been helpful. If the Chinese population had been convinced that the initial reports of a mysterious pneumonia outbreak was a return of the 2003 SARS virus, instead of SARS-CoV-2 (the virus that causes Covid-19), that could have had disastrous results. One critical difference between SARS and SARS-CoV-2 is the latter having presymptomatic and asymptomatic transmission (where cases could infect others before, or without developing any symptoms), whereas SARS did not (Lancet, 5/1/20). Would it have been helpful for people to think they should only quarantine or isolate themselves when they develop symptoms?
Likewise, another question the Times, ProPublica and other Western outlets ignore when they criticize China for censoring “anything that cast China’s response in too ‘negative’ a light” is whether sharing negative or sensationalized information is useful for containing a pandemic. It’s impossible for any news media outlet to cover every bit of information, so story selection and prioritization of information is unavoidable and necessary. From the beginning, the WHO has criticized what it called an “infodemic,” which is an overabundance of information that can be either inaccurate or useless. FAIR has criticized news media for not prioritizing scientific coverage of how people get infected (4/11/20, 5/9/20), sensationalist reports that incite panicked and racist responses (3/6/20, 5/7/20), or misleading coverage that instills a false sense of security (5/27/20) or resigned helplessness (3/20/20, 5/1/20).
When the Times/ProPublica criticize the Chinese government for trying to “steer the narrative not only to prevent panic and debunk damaging falsehoods domestically,” but in order to “make the virus look less severe” and “the authorities more capable,” they omit that not only have the Chinese government’s pandemic results been superior to those achieved by most other governments, but that delivery of accurate information to the public was critical to that success. A visitor to China early in the outbreak (HuffPost, 1/30/20) noted that coronavirus coverage dominated all other topics, and prioritized explaining the rationale behind government measures, scientific information on how it spreads, and reports encouraging confidence and compliance with government directives:
Another really interesting manifestation of the power of government is the news. The coronavirus may be big news internationally, but in China, it’s the only news right now…. While China’s tight control of the media has many pitfalls, it seems uniquely well-suited for keeping an epidemic under control.
Other people living in China have testified that because the vast majority of the Chinese people express trust and support for their government, Chinese media’s unified messaging and emphasis allowed for a much more unified response and widespread compliance with government directives to prevent panic and infection.
In contrast, influential US media outlets like Fox News have been criticized by doctors for eroding trust in medicine, scientists and other data (NBC, 12/18/20). Numerous media studies of pandemic coverage (Washington Post, 6/28/20) have found that contradictory US media coverage has led millions of Americans to believe that the pandemic threat is exaggerated, join anti-quarantine protests, refuse to comply with wearing masks and social distancing measures, as well as panic shop for toilet paper, hand sanitizer and face masks, leading to shortages across the country at the beginning of the outbreak. The US has also allowed misinformation and conspiracy theories peddled by the notorious Plandemic documentary and right-wing media before social media giants like Twitter and Facebook began suppressing them.
The Times/ProPublica report also ignored how the US government engages in censorship and narrative controls in order to lie to the public, and crack down on actual whistleblowers. These actions are consistent with the deliberate mass infection strategy that the administration contemplated; whether or not that was the actual agenda, the government’s policies led to catastrophic deaths. These omissions create the misimpression that China’s government was uniquely incompetent and dishonest in its response to Covid, when any fair comparison would belie this.
It is important for American journalists to combat these misperceptions, so that the US can learn from China’s response on how to better deal with the current crisis—saving lives in this as well as future pandemics, as well as reducing tensions between the nuclear powers US and China.
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