Why Did 21 Million Phone Numbers Disappear from China After Coronavirus Outbreak?

While experts say the missing phone numbers probably don’t correlate to the real number of coronavirus deaths in China, they agreed that China undoubtedly falsified its data.

As the coronavirus pandemic continues to devastate the world in ways no one ever imagined, some are questioning whether China is lying about the extent of COVID-19's impact on its own country. 

Officially, China reported nearly 82,000 cases of the coronavirus and around 3,300 deaths, with only a handful of new cases each day, and announced the country is largely in recovery as China ended its lockdown of Wuhan, the city of 11 million people where the outbreak began. In comparison, the United States reported nearly 500,000 cases of the coronavirus around the country and more than 18,000 deaths by the disease – a figure some officials even believe is under-reported, despite grossly surpassing the numbers coming out of China. 

So when major cellphone carriers in China reported a loss in nearly 21 million subscriptions in January and February, some skeptics theorized that the number of phone numbers that disappeared from the original hotspot of the disease may correlate to the real number of lives lost to the novel coronavirus.

According to data published by the mobile carriers, China Mobile Ltd. saw a drop of nearly 7.25 million subscribers and China Unicom Hong Kong Ltd. lost 7.8 million subscribers in January and February, while China Telecom Corp. lost 5.6 million subscribers in February alone, the Associated Press reported.

China affairs expert Tang Jinyuan explained that having a cellphone and a cell subscription is married to daily life in China. “Dealing with the government for pensions and social security, buying train tickets, shopping … no matter what people want to do, they are required to use cellphones," she said in an interview with the Epoch Times.

So does the sudden drop in subscribers necessarily point to the number of coronavirus-related fatalities in China? Dr. Samantha Hoffman, an analyst at the Australian Strategic Policy Institute, says no.

“I don’t think those pieces of information prove anything at this point,” Hoffman told InsideEdition.com. “There are a lot of indicators that the numbers are wrong, but I wouldn't go so far as to say that the telephone … data is proof of anything. I think that it's too early to answer those questions.”

The number of cell phone subscribers could have dropped as businesses shuttered and work phone plans were cancelled, according to the Associated Press. Or, migrant workers may have cancelled their phone subscription for the region in which they worked when they weren’t able to return after leaving for their home region for Lunar New Year holidays, an analyst told Bloomberg.

However, Hoffman does believe that the state-released data is most likely not reflective of the real number of cases and deaths related to the coronavirus. “I think that the likelihood of these numbers being falsified is pretty high in my view," she said. "To what degree? I’m not sure.”

She is not alone in believing that China’s data is falsified. U.S. intelligence officials also reported that China concealed the extent of the coronavirus outbreak, according to both the New York Times and Fortune Magazine.

Hoffman explained factors other than the drop in cell phone subscriptions point to her conclusion, the most obvious one being China’s “long history of lying about death tolls.”

Another reason she believed the numbers were falsified goes back to the failures of China’s social credit system, a ranking system based on the reputation of each citizen and business. “It’s a system that uses technology to augment existing forms of social and political control,” Hoffman said.

Similar to how each person has a credit score in the United States, a Chinese citizen’s social credit score can move up and down depending on their positive or negative behavior, like failing to pay debts, being convicted of crimes or even smoking in non-smoking areas. Someone with a poor social credit score could be restricted from flights or trains, barred from receiving high-speed internet or be rejected from entrance to the most elite schools, according to Business Insider.

In the wake of the coronavirus, citizens were required to report their travel and medical history, and their answer would factor into their social credit score. “In Beijing for instance, anybody returning from overseas failing to report or misreport their health condition would be included,” Hoffman explained.

However, people are also penalized in the social credit system for spreading fake news or rumors, which could be problematic in China, where there the line between the distinction of spreading rumors and alerting the public to a potential pandemic such as the coronavirus is blurred. 

“Spreading rumors is such a politicized charge in the [People’s Republic of China]. Are there people spreading false rumors? Yeah, probably there are in every country … but the problem is how do you define that? And for the [Chinese Communist] Party that could just be whistle-blowing,” Hoffman said. “I think that's actually more concerning because we already know that there were people who were trying to get the word out about the crisis back when it seemed the party was concealing the severity of the outbreak.”

For those reasons, Hoffman said, it’s hard to gauge the real number of coronavirus cases and deaths in China, despite some social media claims that the number of deaths could be as high as ten times the officially reported figure.

And the implications of China’s potential false reporting could be why we see some countries devastated by the coronavirus, Hoffman said.

“It definitely impacted a global response and how seriously governments were taking this as a threat and how serious people were taking it as a threat as they chose to continue traveling or chose to continue living their normal lives,” she said. “Those are decisions that would have potentially been changed, had information been clear earlier on.”

U.S. officials agreed. “The data set matters … [saving lives] depends on the ability to have confidence and information about what actually transpired,” U.S. Secretary of State Michael Pompeo said in a statement to press.

“The reality is we could have been better off if China has been more forthcoming,” Vice President Mike Pence told CNN.

And as America continues to grapple with its own outbreak, with an apex more imminent with each passing day, Hoffman’s concern is with the long-term effects of China’s handling of the coronavirus pandemic.

“In the long term, this technology (for collecting data for the social credit system) can be a lot more problematic and a lot more powerful,” Hoffman said. “There are a lot of risks, and all of it points to the [Chinese Communist] Party using technology to better expand its power. I think we just sort of had a glimpse of what that looks like with this crisis.”