Deciphering China's numbers

Why the reams of data and figures thrown out about China's economy don't always add up.

    China's massive bureaucracy churns out vast amounts of economic data every month [GALLO/GETTY]

    But in a country like China, with its vast multi-tentacled bureaucracy, handling these numbers, figures and statistics requires an extra degree of care.

    Recently for example, reports have come out attributed to an official at the Central Communist Party School that some 30 per cent of China's migrant labour force could be unemployed this year - a very high figure, translating to tens of millions of jobless.

    One thing that made me scratch my head about this figure is that the government surveys urban and rural income figures, but migrant workers are not included in either of these categories — causing the problem of a missing third.

    Worries about the growing numbers of unemployed has become a hot topic [AFP]
    So I assume when collecting unemployment data, they ordinarily miss the same group. I wondered where and how they surveyed these migrant workers – who are, by their nature, a very mobile population.

    Even the best surveys on migrant workers, I would think, should be looked at very carefully — and qualified.

    Looking at the overall unemployment picture, the Chinese Academy of Social Science (CASS) suggests unemployment could reach 11% in 2009.

    CASS is a government think-tank, a separate government entity.  Other official figures have been suggesting a lower unemployment figure.

    So as much as China is supposed to be a monolithic propaganda state, with excellent control of information, there are lots of statistics from different sources, suggesting many different things.

    Often the numbers just don't add up.

    For example, the Party School has access to field data — that's where their numbers come from. CASS on the other hand is an institution of academics, so while they might not have direct access to information, the people there have good judgment on how to parse the numbers.

    On the local level, provincial governments will also come out with their own figures - depending on the province, their methodology could be called into question, or they may massage figures in the hopes of receiving more central government funding and investment.

    There are a lot of factors at play here. 

    So next time you see a report saying "officials in China say such-and-such" – it's worth looking harder to see where those numbers comes from.

    SOURCE: Al Jazeera


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