In the first few months of 2020, as the COVID-19 coronavirus disease pandemic sprouted in China, the Chinese Ministry of Industry and Information Technology published figures showing a drop of about 21 million cellphone users and 840,000 landline users. According to The Associated Press, online data published by China’s three largest cellphone carriers indicated that for January and February 2020, China Mobile Ltd. reported a drop of nearly 7.25 million subscribers, while China Unicom Hong Kong Ltd. lost 7.8 million subscribers and China Telecom Corp. lost 5.6 million in February alone.
As of April 2020, China had reported a total of about 81,000 COVID-19 cases and about 3,300 deaths from the disease. Some sources seized on the disparity between the numbers of afflicted and cellphone subscribers to assert that the true COVID-19 death in China had been concealed and vastly underreported.
"21 Million Fewer Cellphone Users in China May Suggest a High CCP Virus Death Toll," proclaimed a headline in The Epoch Times. "China Is Lying About the Number of COVID-19 Deaths," declared the Panam Post:
It is true that intelligence officials outside of China believe that the country's government has understated the spread of the coronavirus and the damage the pandemic has caused there, as The New York Times, among others, reported in early April 2020:
The C.I.A. has been warning the White House since at least early February that China has vastly understated its coronavirus infections and that its count could not be relied upon as the United States compiles predictive models to fight the virus, according to current and former intelligence officials.
American intelligence agencies have concluded that the Chinese government itself does not know the extent of the virus and is as blind as the rest of the world. Midlevel bureaucrats in the city of Wuhan, where the virus originated, and elsewhere in China have been lying about infection rates, testing and death counts, fearful that if they report numbers that are too high they will be punished, lose their position or worse, current and former intelligence officials said.
Bureaucratic misreporting is a chronic problem for any government, but it has grown worse in China as the Communist leadership has taken a more authoritarian turn in recent years under Mr. Xi.
The Times reported again the following day that Chinese officials appeared to be pushing for quick burials of the dead and suppressing online discussion of fatalities in order to head off public opprobrium over the government's handling of the coronavirus outbreak:
For months, the residents of Wuhan had been told they could not pick up the ashes of their loved ones who had died during the height of China’s coronavirus outbreak. Now that the authorities say the epidemic is under control, officials are pushing the relatives to bury the dead quickly and quietly, and they are suppressing online discussion of fatalities as doubts emerge about the true size of the toll.
China’s official death toll from the coronavirus stood at 3,322 on [April 3], but medical workers and others have suggested the count should be higher ...
As China tries to control the narrative, the police in Wuhan, where the pandemic began, have been dispatched to break up groups on WeChat, a popular messaging app, set up by the relatives of coronavirus victims. Government censors have scrubbed images circulating on social media showing relatives in the city lining up at funeral homes to collect ashes. Officials have assigned minders to relatives to follow them as they pick burial plots, claim their loved ones’ remains and bury them, grieving family members say.
The ruling Communist Party says it is trying to prevent large gatherings from causing a new outbreak. But its tight controls appear to be part of a concerted attempt to avoid an outpouring of anguish and anger that could be a visceral reminder of its early missteps and efforts to conceal the outbreak. Those same public displays or discussions of loss could also feed skepticism over how China has counted the dead.
Still, to believe that the drop in cellphone subscriptions experienced by Chinese carriers corresponds directly to unreported coronavirus deaths, one would have to believe that the Chinese government managed to misreport COVID-19 mortality in that country by a factor of about 7,000 ... and then let the cat out of the bag by openly publishing statistics about cellphone usage that revealed those unreported deaths. Perhaps some correlation exists, but as The Associated Press reported, the drop in cellphone subscriptions in China could also be attributable to reasons other than millions of subscribers' succumbing to COVID-19:
A representative with China Mobile Ltd. said while the situation was related to the COVID-19 outbreak, it was not related to deaths, but changes in lifestyle.
“It was mainly due to reduced business and social activities resulting from the COVID-19 outbreak,” a spokesperson with the company confirmed to the AP. “Many customers in China have multiple SIM cards and it is common that they use their non-primary SIM cards to do these activities.”
A China Unicom representative acknowledged the difficult market forces at work: “For the first two months of 2020, [we were] facing challenges such as market saturation, keen market competition and the novel coronavirus outbreak ..."