A spate of deaths among celebrities and public figures across China has sparked concerns that the actual death toll from Covid-19 may be far higher than authorities are reporting.
Many on Chinese social media have been mourning the death of actor Gong Jintang, who died aged 83 on New Year’s Day. He was known for his portrayal of Father Kang in the sitcom Kang’s Family, which first aired in 2000.
Gong, who had been a household name for years in China, had his death reported by local media, but the cause of death was unclear.
“I’m so upset. [Gong] represents our memory for two generations,” one person said on Weibo, the Chinese microblogging platform.
Last month, Beijing opera fans were shocked by the sudden passing of Chu Lanlan, a 40-year-old soprano who performed during the 2008 Beijing Olympics. An obituary released by Beijing Opera Arts College said that Chu, who taught at the institution, died of illness. Her family said they were saddened by her death, but did not elaborate on its cause, local media reported.
China last month relaxed its zero-Covid restrictions, leading to a surge in infections, with hospitals and crematoriums quickly overwhelmed.
In late December, China’s National Health Commission stopped publishing daily Covid data. The World Health Organization earlier this week criticised China’s “very narrow” definition of Covid deaths, warning that official statistics were not showing the true impact of the outbreak.
China has recorded only 22 Covid deaths since December and has dramatically narrowed the criteria for classifying such fatalities, meaning that Beijing’s own statistics about the unprecedented wave are now widely seen as not reflecting reality.
The recent deaths of public figures like Gong and Chu has led many in China to question official Covid data.
Under a Weibo hashtag that reads “the first Covid wave did not cause a massive amount of deaths”, which refers to a December quote from a Chinese health official, many Chinese internet users angrily questioned what they called a huge underestimate in the death toll. The hashtag had more than 220m views by Friday afternoon.
“Whether it is academicians or celebrities … or my relatives and friends in close contact, I really feel many people have died, but experts keep saying that was not the case,” one person commented.
Another user said: “I beg those adults who can’t see the ants on the ground to see how many people have passed away due to Covid. Just how many people who have great contributions to the country have died? And these were all celebrities.”
Wang Jingguang, an award-winning film director best known for his 2013 movie Never Come Back, was also among the recent deaths, dying last month aged 54.
Ni Zhen, an 84-year-old renowned Chinese scriptwriter, died last month. Ni was known for writing the classic 1991 film Raise the Red Lantern.
Retired soccer star Wang Ruoji was also among the deaths last month. Chinese state media reported that Wang died of Covid at the age of 37.
“Many public figures have died, with many of them passing at a young age,” Weibo influencer Haishang Yilanghua, who has 364,000 followers, wrote last month. “These deaths were made public, but there were still many other ordinary people who suffered and died that was not posted online.”
Xiaoqian Zhu contributed to this report