Making Sense of Chinese Statistics

A new book methodically peels back the layers of China's statistical machine to provide new insights into the nation's burgeoning economy


For some, wading through Chinese economic data is like wrapping your head around the Talmud. The credibility of the data itself often invites skepticism from observers both inside and outside China. Yet there's little choice but to rely on the official numbers. And China's regular data dump in the middle of each month moves markets in a way that few countries can. If the market has little faith in Chinese statistics, then why all the focused attention? How does one make sense of Chinese data and its idiosyncrasies?

Many of the answers can be found in the eminently useful Understanding China's Economic Indicators, a new book from Tom Orlik, economic journalist/columnist for the Wall Street Journal. (According to his bio, Orlik has earned the unique distinction of having one of his essays on Chinese statistics be required reading by the National Bureau of Statistics staff.) This is not a "big argument" book on China, but one that methodically peels back the layers of the Chinese statistical machine to yield insights on what the data mean, how they're collected, and what the current shortcomings are. You want to know how the Chinese calculates GDP and fiscal revenue, that's chapter two. You want to know about the country's gold and foreign exchange reserves accumulation, flip to chapter five. Still don't quite understand the composition of China's consumer price index? Don't feel bad, no one really does, as you'll discover in chapter seven. This book is the story of a year with Chinese economic data.

I particularly liked the opening vignette that described a gaggle of Chinese and foreign journalists awaiting the announcement of the 2009 fourth quarter GDP. The anticipation was palpable, torturous seconds ticked by as each reporter is poised to pounce on the final revelation of the figure to phone back to their editors--the economic press in China is all cut-throat competition. And hallelujah, it's 10.7% year-over-year growth, which put the annual growth at 8.7%. Yes! China got the 8% it promised it would deliver at the beginning of the year. In Zhongnanahi, Wen Jiabao smiled and sipped some oolong tea (OK, I made up this last part). Sure, it is admittedly a tad bit nerdy, but in just the right way, especially if you're someone who's really into Chinese economic data (like moi).

So what of the credibility of Chinese data? Orlik takes a similar view to what I argued in response to Megan McArdle's dispatch last year that appeared more about highlighting Hayek than understanding how the Chinese stats system actually functioned. Orlik concludes:

The reality of China's economic data today is not the crude controlling hand of the Politburo dictating the GDP growth figure. It is an increasingly reliable and comprehensive set of economic indicators that remain compromised in some areas by the difficulty of measuring a rapidly changing economy, imperfect surveying methods, a recalcitrant sample set, and continued political sensitivity surrounding some numbers. The system is not perfect. Some data points are more reliable than others. But neither is it a farce. As shown by the mad scramble for the GDP data in the State Council Information Office and the bilions of dollars that are traded instantly on its release, the shortcomings in the data are no impediment to the market reaction. 

China has certainly come a long way since the Great Leap Forward days, when complete fabrication of grain production volumes to serve political goals resulted in one of the worst man-made famines in modern history--a point that Orlik discusses at some length. Top policymakers and leaders now rely on numerous data to assess the economy and determine the best course for policy. The very realities of governing a large and dynamic economy requires much less tolerance for outright falsities. Of course, the statistics system still plays catch-up to an economy that is sprinting ahead of it, making the data far from perfect.

Some were surprised by one of the Wikileaks cables that caught Vice Premier Li Keqiang mocking his provincial-level GDP figures as unreliable. It shouldn't have been a surprise. Since the late 1990s, using electricity consumption as a proxy for economic activity has remained a fairly normal practice at both the central and local levels. Relying on "proxy indicators" for GDP growth is one way by which the central leaders counter what they know to be potential local-level doctoring--or "add water" (加水) in Chinese parlance--of their stats, leading to inflated GDP and other growth metrics. Orlik explains some of these proxies in detail.

One reason that electricity consumption has correlated relatively well with economic growth is because industry is by far the largest consumer of power, at perhaps 70 or 75%. As the last decade has been basically defined by China's hyper industrialization phase, capturing a large enough slice of industries--which are massive energy guzzlers--meant you had a rough, but imprecise, picture of the broader economy. The key question over the next decade is whether this correlation breaks down, as China aspires to restructure its economy toward a less industry-led growth model. That is indeed a major pillar of the 12th Five-Year Plan.

If China succeeds in the transition, I suspect Orlik will have to publish an updated edition of his guide to Chinese economic data. 

Image: Reuters