Tuesday, 21 February 2017

The Twain Rarely Meets Where China's Statistics Are Concerned

Today’s Financial Times tells readers that “growth in the cost of new housing in China slowed for the second time since contraction ended in 2015 even as prices remained substantially elevated from a year prior.”

From the standpoint of Beijing’s efforts to gain a firmer hand on the national housing market, that news sounds significant.

But is it accurate?

According to the Chinese leadership, no one really knows.

Earlier this month, a special symposium was held in Beijing, the title of which--“Opinions on Deepening Statistical Management System Reform to Improve the Authenticity of Statistical Data” [关于深化统计管理体制改革提高统计数据真实性的意见]—captures the core difficulty that officials here face in gathering and coordinating data, at lower levels as well as across bureaus and departments: that the statistics presented aren’t reliable. Authenticity, reliability, veracity—indeed, truthfulness itself—are all connotations of the term 真实性 [zhenshixing]. And they're features of what's gone missing when it comes to data in China.  

It’s worth noting that the conference was chaired by Politburo member and Vice Premier Zhang Gaoli [张高丽] and received front-page coverage in People’s Daily—clear indications that the statistical issue is a major challenge for Beijing in a way that it's not been before. In particular, Zhang cited Premier Li Keqiang’s previous plea “to ensure that the statistical data is true and reliable, to provide scientific support for decision-making and deployment for the country [坚持实事求是,确保统计数据真实可靠,为国家各项决策部署提供科学支撑].” 

In other words, China’s decision-makers aren’t able to make smart choices in a period of stagnating growth if they trust bad data, or mistrust reported information in general. A major challenge, according to Zhang, is that there’s dishonesty and a lack of accountability when it comes to figures reported to Beijing by local governments. That needs to be punished, Zhang argues—a strong signal that what’s passing for actual information is anything but.

This problem of getting good statistics isn’t new for China, as an excellent book by University of Toronto’s Tong Lam shows. What’s more recent though is the strange juxtaposition of well-founded skepticism about China’s figures by outside observers and, at the very same time, the propensity for some to rely on those figures without wondering whether they’re reliable enough to report in the first place. When Chinese leaders doubt the data, there seems ample reason for others to be skeptical.  

What could well be happening with these newest housing figures (at least on a macro-level, because the micro-level data in some cities is more convoluted even when it’s disaggregated) is that political pressure from Beijing prompted local officials to provide reports that aligned with the directives issued in recent months for cities to rein in housing prices—whatever it took.
It’s possible that Beijing’s policies are working to stop the steep price rises that marked many Chinese cities this past year. And the reports attesting to that success might be relying upon data that’s for once reliable. 

But it’s also entirely possible that the statistics that Beijing—and news reports are relying on—are confirming what more than a few government officials here already believe and are increasingly angry about: that figures lie, and that liars figure.

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