Chinese health ministry won't release lockdown suicide statistics amid COVID-19 surge

Such data is highly sensitive and regarded by the Chinese Communist Party as a 'state secret.'
2022.11.08
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Chinese health ministry won't release lockdown suicide statistics amid COVID-19 surge A worker in a protective suit sits next to the padlocked entrance door of a locked-down residential complex May 8, 2022, in Beijing.
Associated Press

The Chinese health ministry says statistics on suicides under the country's zero-COVID policy of rolling lockdowns and electronic tracking "are not for release," after reports that a woman threw herself from a building under lockdown in Inner Mongolia.

Reports emerged that a 55-year-old woman had jumped from the 12th floor of her apartment building in the regional capital, Hohhot, on Friday, the Beijing-backed news site Sixth Tone reported.

Local authorities came under fire after reports that her 29-year-old daughter told the neighborhood group chat that her door had been welded shut for the last month, making it impossible for them to leave the apartment.

Disease control and prevention chiefs called for an end to the use of external locks, latches or welding to seal residents into their apartments during lockdowns under Chinese leader Xi Jinping's zero-COVID policy.

"China will increase scientific epidemic control and prevention levels and firmly rectify excessive measures and hold those who fail to implement full rectifications accountable according to the law," State Council disease control and prevention officials told a news conference on Nov. 5, according to the Global Times newspaper.

But officials declined to reveal the number of suicides that have taken place in China since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic in the central city of Wuhan in late 2019.

"We don't have this data," an employee who answered the phone at the national bureau of statistics told RFA on Monday. "We don't have it in the database, because it's controlled by the National Health Commission."

"It has a great deal of data, and it doesn't give us all of it," the employee said, adding that detailed cause-of-death statistics are generally only made public every 10 years, around the time of the national census.

An employee who answered the phone at the National Health Commission said the data on suicides wasn't available to the public.

"This information is for internal use only, and it won't be easy to come by," the employee said. "We're not allowed to give it out."

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Officials wearing protective gear stand outside the locked gate of a residential compound that was placed under lockdown as outbreaks of COVID-19 continue in Beijing, Nov. 7, 2022. Credit: Reuters

Suicide statistics as 'state secrets'

Former Chinese Red Cross executive Ren Ruihong said statistics on suicides during the pandemic are regarded by the Chinese Communist Party as a state secret.

Any attempt to obtain such information could be regarded as an attempt to lay hands on state secrets, Ren said.

A front-line clinician working in a large provincial hospital said on condition of anonymity that they had anecdotal evidence of an increase in deaths from non-COVID causes during the pandemic, however.

"We can only see our own figures; there are no statistics in this regard for the whole country," the clinician said.

"I think those who need to go to hospital for regular follow-up appointments and long-term treatment are the worst affected," she said. "For example, people with chronic renal insufficiency, who need to go to hospital for dialysis, but they're not allowed to gather [in the facility], which accommodates 50 patients."

The pandemic had also had a major impact on people's mental health, especially among the least privileged in society, the doctor said.

She said suicides are occurring at a greater rate among young people, a change she described as "distressing."

"The number of people suffering abnormal mental states increases significantly during lockdowns," the doctor said. "Previously, it might not have occurred to young people to end their own lives."

"It used to be mostly elderly people, or people with health problems [they couldn't afford to treat]."

"Now, some young people ... are committing suicide because of the pressures in their lives," she said. 

She said possible suicides are often not recorded as such, as the case of people who die by drowning after jumping into bodies of water.

NGO leader Niu Zhenxi agreed.

"We haven't compiled figures on this; we can only say that it happens constantly," Niu said. "We're a civilian rescue team, so we go in and try to save people on behalf of the government."

"But it’s inconvenient to ask," Niu said, in a reference to the political sensitivity of the topic. Critics of the zero-COVID policy have been detained in recent months.

Peng Kaiping, dean of social sciences at Tsinghua University, said in recent comments that diabetes and suicide were behind most excess deaths during the pandemic in China, but made no reference to specific data.

Repeated calls to mental health helplines run by authorities in Shanghai, Beijing, Guangzhou, Shenzhen, Qingdao, Hangzhou, as well as the psychological counseling helpline run by the Chinese Academy of Sciences, rang unanswered during service hours on Monday.

It was unclear why calls weren't able to connect in so many locations.

Most nationwide cases in months

Chinese authorities reported 7,475 fresh, locally transmitted cases of COVID-19 on Monday, the highest nationwide number for six months.

Several districts of the central city of Zhengzhou were imposing restrictions on the movements of local residents, while the Qinhuangdao municipal government buildings were under lockdown following an outbreak of cases there, according to the National Health Commission website.

Zhengzhou resident Jia Lingmin local residents' committees and neighborhood committees are now requiring information from people that could previously only be demanded by law enforcement agencies.

Under an amended administrative punishment law that took effect in July 2022, China recently empowered local officials at township, village, and neighborhood level to enforce the law. 

"Security guards on the gates of the residential community and so-called epidemic prevention personnel [should] have no law enforcement power and are not qualified to obtain personal information," Jia said. 

Jia said some local residential committees had withdrawn a political questionnaire that formed part of applications for a pass to exit residential compounds under COVID-19 restrictions, after local residents complained.

Translated and edited by Luisetta Mudie.

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