Up until a few months ago, this felt like a domestic Chinese issue. Sure, American investment firms have always struggled with finding accurate data. American journalists have sometimes repeated misleading Chinese statistics. But the stakes are far higher today. American media outlets should add an asterisk after Chinese statistics, to inform readers that the numbers they are reading cannot be verified, and should therefore be questioned.
Why? In the coronavirus era, Chinese statistics endanger Americans. The coronavirus outbreak originated in China, and the country faced the earliest and possibly the worst ravaging from the disease. Misunderstanding the speed at which coronavirus spread in China and the current rate of infection there impairs understanding of how the disease affects Americans. Major American news outlets such as the The Post have done an excellent job covering China and the coronavirus. And yet, just over the past week, major outlets — including, among others, Reuters, The Post and Bloomberg — have occasionally reported Chinese statistics without mentioning or even implying their unreliability.
A March 18 New York Times piece about Chinese soft power claimed that daily cases in China were “dwindling into the single digits,” while a March 27 Wall Street Journal article averred that the United States had overtaken China in confirmed cases — to name but two examples. By promoting Chinese statistics, American news outlets are unwittingly spreading Chinese propaganda and bolstering Beijing’s claim that it should serve as a global model to the world.
I propose that American publications affix an asterisk at the end of any sentence that relies on a Chinese statistic. It’s only a small distraction, and it reminds readers to interrogate the information they’re reading. Publications could choose to institute the convention across their stories, or they could only do so where it matters the most to readers today: in coronavirus coverage. Instead of headlines blaring “U.S. Virus Cases Top World,” for example, editors could temper the hyperbole with “U.S. Virus Cases Top World.*” A note at the bottom of the article could provide the context: The Party often manipulates statistics, and with the worsening media environment in China, the publication cannot in good faith claim that U.S. virus cases surpass China’s.
How do we know China’s coronavirus statistics are inaccurate? Consider one egregious example. In northwest China’s region of Xinjiang, authorities claim that by April 5, a total of only 76 people have contracted the disease, and only three have died, in a population of roughly 24.5 million. On the same day, the United States reported a total of 304,826 cases and 7,616 deaths among 331 million people. In other words, Beijing claims that, on a per capita basis, roughly 300 times as many people have contracted the disease, and more than 180 times as many have died, in the United States than in Xinjiang. Everything is possible. But claiming that the region where an estimated 1 million Muslims are imprisoned in concentration camps is far safer from the coronavirus than the United States strains credulity.
Chinese statistics are growing more and more untrustworthy. Over the past two months, Beijing has moved against the two foreign groups that provide the most accurate auditing of the Party’s numbers. After moving against the Wall Street Journal in February, Beijing decided to expel nearly all of the American journalists from the Wall Street Journal, The Post and the New York Times. (Disclosure: Some of the expelled journalists are my friends.)
In early April, the Foreign Ministry also urged foreign diplomats to stay away from Beijing. While diplomats rarely publicly disclose the information they receive, they act as important sources for foreign journalists in China and as crucial transmitters of information about China to their home country. The expulsions have a ripple effect. They remind people in the Party bureaucracy, and in Chinese companies and media outlets, of the dangers of divulging sensitive information to foreigners. And they serve as a warning to the remaining diplomats and journalists that probing too deeply could get one chastised or expelled.
The asterisk could be a permanent change. Or it could be a temporary measure, as it also serves as a reminder of the Party’s treatment of American journalists. The Post, the Times and the Journal can maintain this style convention until Beijing reinstates their journalists. Other news outlets can join in solidarity as well, until Beijing reinstates the visas and welcomes the journalists back. The return of the American reporters won’t necessarily improve the quality of Chinese statistics. But it will serve as a signal from Beijing that it values at least some accountability, and it will improve the quality of the information those papers publish about China, rendering the asterisk less needed.
There’s already enough distrust in the United States about the quality of American reporting. Why not add an asterisk — and remind people that facts matter?