The American Interest
Analysis by Walter Russell Mead & Staff
China Stats Even Shakier Than Thought?

Trees may not grow to the sky, but they can tell tall tales about their height.

That at least is what we can infer from this piece in the New York Times, where reporter Keith Bradsher inspects some recent economic signals coming out of China.  The closer he looks, the less reliable those statistics appear.

Many China hands follow the advice of Li Keqiang who is reported by Wikileaks to have told a US diplomat that the only statistics really worth tracking are electricity use, rail shipments and bank lending. The rest are widely understood to be make-believe, with local officials telling party authorities in Beijing what they want to hear.

But if Bradsher’s piece gets it right, even those statistics don’t tell the truth.

Record-setting mountains of excess coal have accumulated at the country’s biggest storage areas because power plants are burning less coal in the face of tumbling electricity demand. But local and provincial government officials have forced plant managers not to report to Beijing the full extent of the slowdown, power sector executives said.

If power use statistics are also inflated, Chinese growth and total GDP may both be less than many observers believe. It’s always hard to tell what is happening in China — even and perhaps especially when you are there yourself. The country is so big, the government so secretive and the economy is becoming so complex that the smartest experts tend to be those who have the least confidence in their own forecasts and projections.

If it is hard to get a handle on the present state of China’s economy, it is even harder to forecast its future economic and political development. The world has never seen an economic transformation of this scale and intensity in a country this big. The uncertainty, for business chiefs and policy makers, is uncomfortable and wearing — but that is life in the 21st century.

Published on June 23, 2012 2:22 pm
  • Anthony

    “It is always hard to tell what is happening in China….” Speculation, speculation in combination with unknowns can engender at best uncertainty and at worst erroneous prognosis.

  • Mrs. Davis

    Given its history China is headed for a period of chaos and warlordism when the rural folk get fed up with their situation versus those in the cities. As with the Soviet Union, the hard part is knowing when this will happen. But after it is over, China will still be there.

  • http://www.everymanblog.com Everyman

    Is anyone truly surprised that at least some of China’s seeming prosperity – evidenced by empty shopping malls and high-rise office space, all quiet as tombs – is of the Potemkin Village variety? Big country, yes. But big, and often transparent, fakery, too.

  • Kris

    And lemme tell ya, my thoughts are pretty shaky.

  • http://facingzionwards.blogspot.com/ Luke Lea

    re: Chinese statistics

    For those who don’t know, an important factor in the mass famine in China during the Great Leap Forward was false reporting of statistics. Mao — who was out of his mind — ordered a tripling of agricultural output through more intensive cultivation. Local authorities reported out-sized gains — they didn’t dare call the Chairman a fool — after which the government took a big share as tax to feed the urban population. On paper this should have left plenty of food in the countryside, but of course it wasn’t there. Mao lived in a bubble of fantasy and ignorance; no one dared tell him the truth. People starved be the tens of millions. Families ate their own children (young daughters) and corpses. It was the largest famine in recorded history.

    Similar motivation still rules in China. Local officials have quotas to meet if they expect to be promoted. They lie. China lies, It is a system of lies.