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The growing number of Chinese public figures whose deaths are being made public is prompting people to question the official Covid death toll.
The death of Chu Lanlan, a 40-year-old opera singer, last month came as a shock to many, given how young she was.
Her family said they were saddened by her “abrupt departure“, but did not give details of the cause of her death.
China scrapped its strict zero-Covid policy in December and has seen a rapid surge of infections and deaths.
There are reports of hospitals and crematoria becoming overwhelmed.
But the country has stopped publishing daily cases data, and has announced only 22 Covid deaths since December, using its own strict criteria.
Now only those who die from respiratory illnesses such as pneumonia are counted.
On Wednesday the World Health Organization (WHO) warned that China was under-representing the true impact of Covid in the country – in particular deaths.
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But the deaths of Chu Lanlan and others is sparking speculation about greater losses than those reported on official accounts.
According to the specialist news website Operawire, Chu Lanlan was a soprano who specialised in Peking Opera – a theatrical art in which performers use speech, song, dance and combat movements to tell stories – and was also involved in charitable causes.
On New Year’s Day news of the death of actor Gong Jintang devastated many Chinese internet users.
Gong, 83, was known to many households for his performance in the country’s longest-running TV series, In-Laws, Out-laws. His portrait of Father Kang had captivated fans for more than two decades since the show first aired in 2000.
The cause of his death is unclear, but many social media users linked it to the recent deaths of other older people.
“Please god, please treat the elderly better,” his co-star Hu Yanfen wrote on Chinese social media platform Weibo.
“R.I.P Father Kang. This wave have really claimed many elders’ lives, let’s make sure we protect the elderly in our families,” one user wrote on Weibo.
Acclaimed scriptwriter Ni Zhen was also among recent deaths. The 84-year-old was famous for his work on the 1991 film Raise the Red Lantern, which is widely considered to be one of the best Chinese films by critics.
Meanwhile Hu Fuming, a former journalist and retired professor of Nanjing University, died on 2 January at the age of 87.
He was the main author of a famous commentary published in 1978 that marked the start of the China’s “Boluan Fanzheng” period – a time of eliminating chaos and returning to normal after the upheaval of the Cultural Revolution under the country’s first Communist leader Mao Zedong.
According to a tally by Chinese media, 16 scientists from the country’s top science and engineering academies died between 21 and 26 December.
None of these deaths were linked to Covid in their obituaries, but that hasn’t prevented speculation online.
“Did he also die of ‘bad flu’?” one of the top-rated comments under news of Mr Ni’s death said.
“Even if you trawl through the whole internet you can’t find any reference to his cause of death,” said another internet user.
But there was also criticism of demonstrators who took to the streets in November in rare political protests calling for the end of leader Xi Jinping’s zero-Covid policy.
“Are those people happy now, seeing old people… now paving the way for their freedom?” asked one social media user.
The new generation powering China’s protests
Mr Xi appeared to refer obliquely to the protests in his New Year’s address, saying it was natural in such a big country for people to have different opinions.
But he urged people to come together and show unity as China entered a “new phase” in its approach to Covid.
The Chinese authorities are aware of the widespread scepticism although they continue to play down the severity of this wave of Covid sweeping the country.
In an interview with state TV, the director of Beijing’s Institute of Respiratory Diseases admitted the number of deaths of elderly people so far this winter was “definitely more” than in past years, while also stressing that critical cases remained a minority of the overall number of Covid cases.
This week the People’s Daily, the Communist Party’s official newspaper, urged citizens to work towards a “final victory” over Covid and dismissed criticism of the previous zero-Covid policy.
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