Correction: Chinese coal mine deaths

In my story about the Chinese economy in the latest Atlantic, I say, "You never know which statistics to believe in China, but in January a local official in Dongguan told me..."  The never-know problem is a real challenge here, and a reason to view any number concerning China with skepticism.

Part of the problem arises from what we might call a "transparency" issue. The government has committed itself to a growth rate of at least 8 per cent this year. Whatever else happens, it is safe to assume that at year's end the reported growth rate will be about 8 per cent. Part of the problem is the sheer impossibility of really knowing what is going on in so vast a country containing such geographic, economic, and social extremes. Is China's population closer to 1.3 billion -- or 1.4 billion? It's a difference of 100 million, and I don't think anyone knows for sure.

And for foreigners there's a particular problem of having your usual standards of judgment mismatched to China's scale. I have been in cities that looked middling-size. Based on the street grid and downtown area, I would have estimated the population at maybe 100,000 -- then I'm told that two million people live there. (True? I don't know.) Every reporter in China knows about the government statistics reporting 60,000 to 70,000 mass disturbances throughout the country each year. Could that possibly be true? Two hundred a day? It doesn't seem plausible, but I see the figure quoted all the time.

Very late in the process of writing my latest article, I saw a release from the government-controlled Xinhua news agency, saying that coal mining fatalities had declined to a total of over 90,000 in 2008. Could that possibly be true? Two hundred and fifty people per day? So I double-checked with Xinhua, and so did our fact-checker, and that was the number the government was officially putting out. As a result, one passage in my story said:

So if China's rise is not undone by the risks that have been evident for years--pollution, water shortage, corruption, the widening rich-poor social gap, safety standards so primitive that on average more than 250 people die each day in coal-mine accidents--might China prove vulnerable to Soviet-style discontent born of a slowing economy?...
My guess is No. [And on to the main argument of the article.]

Twelve days later, Xinhua put out this correction.

In the corrected version, ninety thousand people had died in accidents of all sorts in China last year, not just in coal mines. The coal mine fatality rate was more like nine per day, not 250. I was out of China when this correction was posted, and I didn't see it until just now. (You don't routinely go back to sources you've already checked, to see if they've happened to change their figures.) If I'd seen it immediately we could have made a change just before our issue went to the printer, but I probably wouldn't have seen it even if I were sitting in Beijing.

I regret the error, though I am glad for the differential 240 coal miners per day, and wanted to take the initiative in putting the revised number on the record. The larger points about workplace safety -- and the resilience of the Chinese economy, and the shakiness of statistics -- remain.

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James Fallows is a national correspondent for The Atlantic and has written for the magazine since the late 1970s. He has reported extensively from outside the United States and once worked as President Carter's chief speechwriter. His latest book is China Airborne. More

James Fallows is based in Washington as a national correspondent for The Atlantic. He has worked for the magazine for nearly 30 years and in that time has also lived in Seattle, Berkeley, Austin, Tokyo, Kuala Lumpur, Shanghai, and Beijing. He was raised in Redlands, California, received his undergraduate degree in American history and literature from Harvard, and received a graduate degree in economics from Oxford as a Rhodes scholar. In addition to working for The Atlantic, he has spent two years as chief White House speechwriter for Jimmy Carter, two years as the editor of US News & World Report, and six months as a program designer at Microsoft. He is an instrument-rated private pilot. He is also now the chair in U.S. media at the U.S. Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, in Australia.

Fallows has been a finalist for the National Magazine Award five times and has won once; he has also won the American Book Award for nonfiction and a N.Y. Emmy award for the documentary series Doing Business in China. He was the founding chairman of the New America Foundation. His recent books Blind Into Baghdad (2006) and Postcards From Tomorrow Square (2009) are based on his writings for The Atlantic. His latest book is China Airborne. He is married to Deborah Fallows, author of the recent book Dreaming in Chinese. They have two married sons.

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