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Deaths of Chinese celebrities fuel COVID speculation on Weibo

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Weeks after effectively abandoning zero-COVID protocols, Chinese officials have only attributed a few dozen deaths to the virus, despite evidence documenting overwhelmed hospitals and funeral homes.

Several celebrity artists, performers, and academics in China are among those who have died in the last month, but their obituaries — often posted by family members on social media — have largely cited "illness" as their cause of death.

Chinese social media users have complained that their own family members’ deaths from COVID-19 have instead been attributed to other illnesses. Frustration with China’s broader opacity over the extent of its outbreaks — the country has mostly given up tracking cases, for example — has fueled many Chinese to speculate whether these celebrities truly died of “illness.”

Here are three such celebrities whose recent deaths have prompted speculation on Weibo — China's version of Twitter.

A screenshot of Ni Zhen from a Weibo post
影视独舌/Weibo
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Wang Jingguang

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Director Wang Jingguang, known in China for his films like Never Look Back and Lawless, died at 54 on Dec. 21, his wife and friend confirmed on social media, as reported by 163.com, the news site of tech giant Netease. His family did not specify the cause of death, only saying that he died after falling sick and not responding to medical intervention.

Users on Weibo commemorated his legacy, with some suspecting that COVID could have caused his death.

"In the end, it is unclear who the real murderer is," wrote one user. "The city's lies still can't be stopped."

Weibo Post on Wang Jingguang death
流星集/Weibo

Fu Zucheng

Actor Fu Zucheng, who starred in propaganda films like Little Flower, died at age 82 on Dec. 20, his son and fellow actor Fu Jia wrote on Weibo. There was no mention on the cause of death.

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Several users replying on Fu Jia's post offered their condolences, but added their own suspicions on his death.

"Peace for the dead," commented one user. "The epidemic is serious...Mr. Fujia needs to take good care of himself."

Weibo user on Fu Zucheng death
王淑华大姐/Weibo

Ni Zhen

The Beijing Film Academy announced the death of scriptwriter and faculty member Ni Zhen on Dec. 22, from an "illness" at the age of 84. Ni had written Raise the Red Lantern, which won the Silver Lion Award at the 48th Venice Film Festival.

While some Weibo users said the death of an 84-year-old was to be expected, others speculated on the cause.

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"Yes, basic diseases can also cause death, but did they agree that after the outbreak during this fully-open epidemic that they could control the underlying diseases...they're all dying at the same time," wrote one user.

Weibo post on Ni Zhen death
妖小蝶/Weibo
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China continues to report minimal COVID deaths, despite experts suggesting the situation is much more serious than official counts. The British Medical Journal reports that China has effectively stopped counting cases since at least Dec. 24.

According to internal government documents obtained by the Financial Times, 250 million people in China caught COVID in the first 20 days of December, but state media only reported 62,592 symptomatic cases during this time frame.

In response to the lack of transparent data and concerns that a new variant could spur from the high rate of transmission, several countries have imposed new travel restrictions on passengers arriving from China.

Title iconNotable
  • The Financial Times reports that several prominent Chinese figures have died within the last month, with only one business executive's and one academic's obituary reporting death from COVID. The obituaries of other celebrities who have died, including 39-year-old opera singer Chu Lanlan, did not mention COVID, but tributes by friends and family members appear to suggest they died of the virus.
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