Chinese authorities' move last to week to revise the Covid-19 death toll in Hubei province could be in preparation to increase the number of overall fatalities in the country, local people suspect.
Authorities in Hubei province, where the Covid-19 pandemic was first reported, added 1,290 more deaths on April 17, taking the province's death toll to 3,869 and the national death toll to 4,632.
The Chinese Communist Party must be preparing to release even bigger figures, said Father Paul Li, a social observer in mainland China.
The revision of figures in Hubei could be part of "exploring the road" as the party now knows its numbers will make it look like it is hiding the truth, the priest said.
The government said it revised the number because of the late reporting of deaths by hospitals and families. The update counted the numbers available until April 16, it said.
However, Father Li said the government had put even personal e-mails and social media accounts under surveillance. “How can they say the hospitals were late reporting deaths?" he questioned, saying authorities were looking for reasons to deal with the situation.
"The whole world now knows that the party was hiding numbers. In this age of technology, it's only a matter of time that people will get the information authorities are trying to hide," the priest said.
The pandemic, which was first reported in Hubei's Wuhan city of 11 million people last December, lasted in the province for more than three months. But the national death roll even now stands below 5,000.
In contrast, several European cities have reported tens of thousands of deaths from Covid-19 in the past three months. For example, New York reported some 15,000. The death toll in the US was 42,000 as of April 23.
John, a Catholic in Hubei province, said a government report on April 10 revealed that some 400 orphan children whose parents died of Covid-19 were rescued and protected in various places.
"That means 800 adults have died of the epidemic, considering the number of orphan children reported. What about children still not found or not rescued?" he asked.
John said the Wuchang Funeral parlor stated on March 23 that it would distribute the ashes of only 500 people a day before the Qingming Festival, which this year fell on April 4.
“That means in 13 days one funeral parlor distributed the ashes of 6,500 cremated bodies. There are eight funeral parlors in Wuhan. The figures will anyway exceed the official death toll,” the Catholic said.
A government official, who asked not to be named, revealed that the number of deaths in Wuhan was "staggering." The official number is just "the tip of the iceberg."
"Don't say that China fought and won the epidemic because of its rulers. It is exactly these rulers who created a huge problem" by trying to suppress information on the outbreak, he said.
Xiao Zheng, a journalist in Henan province, said: "The government of China is like this … it slowly corrects when the situation demands."
He said authorities seem to forget that in the internet age every post of an individual is a record, and just counting individual death reports "could reveal the real situation. Authorities can't hide anything."
The revision of the death toll became a debate on social media, with many claiming that authorities were covering up the truth.
Some civil servants also question the Hubei authorities' truthfulness about the epidemic.
On April 13, civil servant Tan Jun of Yichang City in Hubei province approached a court to file a criminal case against the provincial government for concealing the disease, resulting in loss of lives and property.
However, the court did not accept his petition, and he was later taken away for a "conversation" with local authorities, who asked him not to sue the government and not to post the information on the internet. But Tan rejected the request by posting the entire incident on his social media.
Tan said those responsible for the lapses must be held accountable. "As a Hubeian, I feel the need to stand up and call for the government to come forward and take responsibility," he said.