Chinese celebrity Covid deaths subvert propaganda aimed at downplaying outbreak

China is mourning a growing number of public figures lost to Covid-19, from academics to opera singers, whose deaths have complicated government efforts to downplay the scale of the ongoing outbreak sweeping the country.

Since authorities last month removed most of the restrictions instituted to keep the virus at bay, the coronavirus has been rampaging through China’s vulnerable population with unprecedented speed, leaving hospitals inundated with the sick and elderly. and crematoria overwhelmed with demand.

The devastation has left Chinese propaganda outlets struggling to shape a cohesive narrative and champion the rollback of President Xi Jinping’s zero Covid strategy, especially after he spent two years playing the western death toll as evidence. of China’s superior governance.

In recent weeks, a slew of obituaries posted by companies, institutes, schools and families have undermined the official narrative that the outbreak is under control and the variants prevalent in China are less severe by illustrating the human toll. the easing of restrictions.

Shanghai Kehua Bio-Engineering announced last week that its founder Tang Weiguo, 66, who for more than three decades made the group one of China’s leading clinical testing companies, had died of Covid-19 and a underlying illness on December 25.

“Old boss Tang, bon voyage,” wrote the company, which recently shifted to producing millions of rapid Covid tests, in an obituary posted on its website.

Covid-related complications also claimed the lives in Beijing of 39-year-old opera singer Chu Lanlan and famed dancer and politician Zhao Qing, who died at 87, according to friends and relatives. Wang Tao, 52, deputy dean of Inner Mongolia University of Science and Technology, died of Covid on December 30, the school said.

At Nanjing University, former students mourn the death of Hu Fuming, 87, a retired philosopher and professor and author of a famous paper that sparked criticism of former leader Mao Zedong after the Cultural Revolution.

“Changing history and leading the people – that’s really what a great scholar should be,” one of Hu’s students wrote in a social media post.

Some of the tributes mentioned Covid, but most attributed deaths to unspecified illnesses, another source of controversy in the government’s efforts to minimize the wave of exits.

Top health officials have sharply narrowed the definition of Covid deaths to only patients with respiratory failure or pneumonia, excluding those who died with other conditions despite testing positive for the virus.

China reported 5,258 Covid deaths nationwide on Tuesday, including only 25 since December 1, despite projections of up to 1 million deaths in the current surge. No deaths have been reported in Shanghai, Nanjing and Inner Mongolia since the infection rate exploded last month.

The National Health Commission later said the published death totals were for “research and study references” only.

Implausible official statistics led Chinese internet sleuths to start recording deaths independently, with some online obituaries turning into virtual bulletin boards as users anonymously added news of lost relatives.

Students at Beijing’s Tsinghua and Peking Universities and other academic institutions have tallied the deaths of retired professors, while other internet sleuths have counted at least 16 deaths among the academies’ 1,831 top figures Chinese sciences and engineering.

In response to the growing attention, the Chinese Academy of Engineering deleted tributes it had posted on social media for five engineers who died on December 23.

“Academicians who have died in recent days have received obituaries. Not sure if others will,” one social media user commented. The academy did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

The clamor has forced Chinese officials to qualify widely discredited public data.

Wu Zunyou, chief epidemiologist at the Chinese Center for Disease Control and Prevention, said last week he would lead a team to calculate excess mortality data and “determine what might have been underestimated”.

Excess mortality, or the number of deaths from all causes above “normal” circumstances, is a relatively reliable indicator of the toll of Covid epidemics.

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