Leaked database of coronavirus outbreaks from Chinese military university has 640,000 “updates”

This piece is two days old yet somehow I didn’t see a word about it in big media or social media until the New York Post picked it up late this afternoon.

I can sort of understand why. Foreign Policy, the site that obtained the database, is a respected publication but their write-up of the results is frustrating in its vagueness. The document clearly includes case counts (“one case of coronavirus in a KFC in the eastern city of Zhenjiang on March 14, for example, while a church in the northeastern provincial capital of Harbin saw two cases on March 17”) but FP doesn’t offer any grand totals. I can only assume that’s because the format of the database somehow doesn’t easily allow for tallying. Maybe it’s a scan of a print document. Or maybe it’s a spreadsheet and each entry is a combination of text and numbers, not a pure numeric amount listed in a single column that can be summed with a simple function.

Look at it this way, though. The official Chinese coronavirus data claims 80,000+ confirmed cases. If each “update” in the database reflects *at least* one new confirmed case, then we’re talking about a lot more than 80,000.

A lot lot.

A dataset of coronavirus cases and deaths from the military’s National University of Defense Technology, leaked to Foreign Policy, offers insight into how Beijing has gathered coronavirus data on its population. The source of the leak, who asked to remain anonymous because of the sensitivity of sharing Chinese military data, said that the data came from the university. The school publishes a data tracker for the coronavirus: The online version matches with the leaked information, except it is far less detailed—it shows just the map of cases, not the distinct data…

While not fully comprehensive, the data is incredibly rich: There are more than 640,000 updates of information, covering at least 230 cities—in other words, 640,000 rows purporting to show the number of cases in a specific location at the time the data was gathered. Each update includes the latitude, longitude, and “confirmed” number of cases at the location, for dates ranging from early February to late April

The data reviewed by Foreign Policy includes hospital locations, but it also includes place names corresponding to apartment compounds, hotels, supermarkets, railway stations, restaurants, and schools across the breadth of the country. The dataset reports one case of coronavirus in a KFC in the eastern city of Zhenjiang on March 14, for example, while a church in the northeastern provincial capital of Harbin saw two cases on March 17. (The data does not include the names of the individuals who contracted or died from the disease, and the reports of the cases in the dataset could not be independently verified.)

That’s 640,000 “updates” minus everything that happened in Wuhan in January, when the epidemic exploded. The database does apparently include some information on “recovered” patients in Wuhan, but as noted in the excerpt, the earliest information in it is from early February, not January.

FP notes that the data set does include certain unspecified “inconsistencies” and “may not be comprehensive enough to contradict Beijing’s official numbers.” Could it be disinformation, propaganda fabricated by some entity that’s hostile to China with phony numbers added to the public data tracker described in the excerpt? In that case you’d think that it would have been leaked to a more prominent outlet than FP (although it’s possible that it was, and that those outlets rejected it as suspicious) and/or that there’d be a clearer total count of deaths and confirmed cases to make things easy on reporters. Needless to say, 640,000 separate entries is a lot of work to undertake to falsify a document. If you wanted to fool western media into believing there are, say, 500,000 Chinese dead, you could achieve that much more quickly by forging some sort of internal communique within the bureaucracy highlighting that number.

It’s also possible that each individual confirmed patient is the subject of multiple updates, in which case there may be far fewer patients than 640,000. E.g., Patient 1 gets an update after they test positive, then another when they’re sent to centralized quarantine, then another when their case worsens, then another when they’re hospitalized, and so on.

Another thought: How likely is it that a document this sensitive would leak to westerners, potentially exploding China’s months of lies about the state of its epidemic? It’s not inconceivable; embarrassing Chinese secrets do leak from time to time. But this information would be very closely held. On the other hand, Trump authorized U.S. cyber offensives against China and other nations last year. And this leak to FP happens to have come at the very moment that China is reportedly trying to hack U.S. companies to steal information on COVID-19 vaccine research. Maybe the database was swiped by U.S. military hackers and handed over to FP as a way to punish China for that.

Although again, in that case, why FP instead of the Times or the Washington Post or the WSJ?

Speaking of conflict between the U.S. and China, there’s a lot of antagonism right now between the American and Chinese leaderships. We haven’t paid much attention to it on the site but we probably should given the potential implications. News broke just within the last few hours:

That’s the tip of the iceberg. Senate Republicans are planning to move a bill that would impose heavy sanctions on Chinese officials who covered up information about the initial outbreak in Wuhan in January. A few days ago Trump ordered the government to divest federal retirement funds from Chinese equities, and told Fox Business this morning that although he has a good relationship with Xi Jinping he doesn’t want to talk to him right now and could conceivably cut off the entire U.S. relationship with China if it came to that. The Chinese, meanwhile, are warning that they plan to take punitive measures against certain members of Congress, potentially with consequences for November’s elections.

If this cold war turns hot, will we win? Well, no, probably not. When do we ever rise to meet any great challenge anymore? We can’t even get some people to wear masks to tamp down a killer plague, for cripes sake. Exit quotation from David Ignatius, assessing how an initial confrontation between the U.S. and Chinese militaries is likely to go: “Our spy and communications satellites would immediately be disabled; our forward bases in Guam and Japan would be ‘inundated’ by precise missiles; our aircraft carriers would have to sail away from China to escape attack; our F-35 fighter jets couldn’t reach their targets because the refueling tankers they need would be shot down.”

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