Statistics in 20th century China: between globalisation and socialist characteristics

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Announcement of the results of the 2020 census on the website of the Chinese National Bureau of Statistics 国家统计局 (May 12, 2021)

Doubts about the reliability of China’s official statistics have been on everyone’s lips since the Great Leap Forward debacle. It has clearly demonstrated what devastating consequences the agency of figures can have if these are not based on economic and demographic realities. As early as 1907, the motto “to seek the truth through from facts” 實事求是 was intended to remind Chinese officials in the newly established Central Bureau of Statistics to refrain from falsifying data and to specifically record quantitatively accurate data, which could serve to save the last dynasty. Deng Xiaoping also took up and instrumentalized the slogan eighty years later as part of his reforms of the “socialist market economy.” Nevertheless, since the “winds of falsification and embellishment” of 1998, China’s official statistics on the gross domestic product (GDP) in particular have repeatedly come under attack, although the supposed evidence for falsification of GDP data is not compelling. The question arises whether, faute de mieux, existing official statistics on China’s economy should be relied upon, even if China is not necessarily honest in its statistical reporting.

To answer this question, this seminar will critically examine the production of statistics in China, particularly on the basis of economic data. Following a short historical excursion, the challenges that both economic reforms and local disparities pose for the development of China’s statistical system and the production of standardized figures will be addressed. The fact that statistical numbers – in contrast to the abstract numbers in pure mathematics – are always a social and political construction equally applies to China. There, a specific ideological context for the production of massive data is provided in particular by the political agenda of the Communist Party. At the top of the official list of priorities for the CCP is the achievement of planned growth targets and the emphasis on “socialist characteristics” of Chinese official statistics. Both are factors whose understanding facilitates the comparability of Chinese data at the international level to some extent, but it does not solve the problem of the need for accurate statistics for global development forecasts.