EXCLUSIVE: Death Toll Rises Nearly 6-Fold in Chinese City Amid COVID Wave, Internal Documents Show

By Eva Fu
Eva Fu
Eva Fu
Eva Fu is a New York-based writer for The Epoch Times focusing on U.S. politics, U.S.-China relations, religious freedom, and human rights. Contact Eva at eva.fu@epochtimes.com
February 1, 2023Updated: February 7, 2023

On the road leading to a crematorium in China’s southern city of Nanjing where thick black smoke billows into the sky, the line of cars is so long that it isn’t clear where it ends.

On the curb squats a woman wearing a white mourning hat with her face buried in her hands, her cries piercing the air.

“It’s the new year,” she says in video footage that first circulated on Chinese social media in early January. “[But] all kinds of cars are coming to collect dead bodies.”

Because of the long lines, the corpses often stay in the cars for up to two days, she said.

The reality of the harsh conditions under China’s COVID-19 tsunami that the woman alluded to aligns with internal document data from Chinese authorities that The Epoch Times obtained from multiple parts of the country in recent weeks. These details, together with interviews with local residents, paint a somber picture of the virus toll that contrasts starkly with the positive tone authorities have strived to project.

An analysis of dozens of files on daily cremation data from Nanjing, the capital of eastern China’s Jiangsu Province and home to about 9.3 million people, shows that the city’s death figures shot up in late December 2022, growing to as many as 761 deaths per day in early January—nearly six times the average daily deaths in the city for the first five months of 2022.

The workload at the city’s seven operating crematoriums indicated the same trend. From Dec. 29 through Jan. 18, the latest period for which Nanjing Funeral Management Office data is available from the trove, the number of bodies processed ranged from about 300 to 774 per day, up to six times the roughly 130 bodies processed per day in the same period last year.

The data shows that the city saw a total of 8,233 deaths from Dec. 18 to Jan. 2, about four times the average 15-day death toll of 2,100 from before the latest COVID-19 wave.

COVID-19 Outbreak In Nanjing
People get medicine at the window of a night diagnosis and treatment station in Nanjing, Jiangsu Province, China, on Dec. 27, 2022. (CFOTO/Future Publishing via Getty Images)

The official documents placed a heightened emphasis on secrecy. While cremation data is reported daily to city-level authorities, such data appears strictly off-limits from being released to the public.

“Report relevant information, data, and charts through emails, do not discuss them on QQ and WeChat,” reads a Jan. 11 document that summarized “key cities’ cremation service situation.” Both QQ and WeChat are dominant social media channels in China under the Shenzhen-based Tencent brand.

“Step up education on secret-guarding work. Strengthen secret-guarding and safety education of cremation industry workers. Do not casually release cremation-related data and information,” the document states.

The same document indicated that a special panel chaired by the Nanjing Civil Affairs Bureau director had been set up to oversee the handling of bodies and that every cremation provider in the city was working 24 hours a day.

In the less than two-week span from Dec. 22, 2022, four funeral homes expanded their capacity by buying morgue refrigerators or requesting more manpower, the document stated. The largest purchase came from Lishui Funeral Home, which bought 120 refrigerators. Nanjing Funeral Home acquired 16 more hearses and hired 38 more drivers.

The total number of additional staff for funeral services was 389 people as of Jan. 11, after 105 people were added eight days earlier.

Causes of Deaths

Despite a significant surge in deaths, few of those cremated were marked as having died from COVID-19. From Nov. 11 to Dec. 17, 2022, the city cremated a total of 4,300 bodies—up by a third from the 3,070 three-year average for the same period from 2019 through 2021, the document stated.

Only 20 of those deaths were marked as COVID-19-related. Data from individual funeral homes from that period further showed that all but one marked the bodies they handled as regular deaths.

Such practice is in line with Beijing’s widely criticized policy that deaths can be attributed to COVID-19 only if it results directly from respiratory failure or pneumonia due to the SARS-CoV-2 virus. In addition, doctors have said that they’ve been ordered not to list COVID-19 as a cause of death on death certificates.

To date, Beijing has only registered less than 80,000 in-hospital COVID-19 deaths. But experts say the figure is a vast undercount of the true death toll, pointing to the regime’s practice of hiding negative information and widespread accounts of overwhelmed crematoriums and hospitals.

China's Hospitals Under Pressure Due To COVID-19
A man hugs an elderly relative in the hallway of a busy emergency room at a hospital in Shanghai on Jan. 14, 2023. (Kevin Frayer/Getty Images)

A Nanjing resident surnamed Zhang, whose full name has been withheld for her safety, said that more than 20 seniors died in a neighborhood where she used to live.

Her neighbor noted the empty sofa and chairs at the compound’s entrance where seniors used to sunbathe.

“Those people are all gone,” Zhang said.

A friend of her’s from the northern megacity of Tianjin recently lost his brother, who was about 66 years old. The man’s body stayed in a mortuary cooler for days until his family bribed a local crematorium’s staff with gifts to get them to collect the body.

Another local, a woman surnamed Su, has a relative in Beijing who managed to skip the more than two-month-long line at a funeral home by “pulling strings” to get his parent cremated. But they still ended up waiting for days.

“There’s no question that a lot of old people died. This is a fact,” Su, who declined to provide her full name for fear of reprisals, told The Epoch Times.

“But as to the actual COVID situation, we can’t tell—there’s no data or public information. Everything is hidden from our knowledge.”

Song Tang and Yi Ru contributed to this report.