Monday, August 31, 2020

Looking for Statistical Fakery in Agriculture Ministry

China's agriculture ministry statisticians are under scrutiny from an inspection team looking for fraudulent and exaggerated numbers, according to the Ministry's web site. The National Bureau of Statistics team led by Deputy Director General Sheng Laiyun is investigating the Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Affairs statistical work from August 21 through September 2, 2020. The check-up is part of a wider crackdown to prevent and penalize fake and falsified statistics ordered by a circular issued in 2019.

Minister of Agriculture and Rural Affairs Han Changfu said this is a one-time check-up of the Ministry's statistical work to carry out General Secretary Xi Jinping's directive to raise the political standing of statistical investigations, regard statistics as part of comprehensive work, and ensure that statistics truthfully reflect the actual situation so economic interventions can be made based on the data. Mr. Han pledged to continually raise the quality of statistics reported by the Ministry.

Statistical audits in other departments identified examples of false reporting by obscure companies and low-level officials. The audits never acknowledge any systemic problems that might undermine the veracity of national data, although the inflation of GDP statistics through exaggeration of data reported by local officials was one of the motivations for the statistical check-ups. 

No particular problems have been identified at the the Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Affairs. The Ministry has reporting systems for items that include livestock numbers, slaughterhouses, feed mills, and monitoring of socioeconomic data in a national sample of villages. This year, officials have especially strong incentive to exaggerate or falsify these statistics to show progress on two major priorities: recovery of the swine farming industry and poverty alleviation. 

Cartoon accompanying 2019 article shows a local official inflating fake pigs to populate a pig farm in order to apply for subsidy funds.

A news media report last year revealed how statistics are exaggerated or falsified to collect subsidies at the local level. A news article reported that 71 local officials in eight counties of Guangdong's Meizhou Prefecture were under investigation for faking pig farm statistics to collect subsidies for constructing scaled-up pig farms. The 2019 report was probably issued to warn local officials against faking data or reporting false information as officials prepared a new round of subsidies to build swine farms in the wake of the 2018-19 African swine fever epidemic. 

According to the Meizhou Prefecture prosecutor, officials submitted false application materials for a 35-mu pig farm, then duped auditors by taking them to a different pig farm. In another case, the journalist visited a farm that was built with 500,000 yuan in subsidies and found no pigs there. The reporter tried to verify the existence of another pig farm listed on a subsidy application but no one in the village had heard of it. In another case, the livestock bureau official was a shareholder in the "above scale" farm but it did not actually meet the requirements for the subsidy. In many instances, directors of county livestock bureaus allegedly received bribes from subsidy recipients to report the false information. 

The Meizhou subsidies were given as part of a program to build scaled-up livestock farms that began in 2007 and is still in operation with funds issued once a year. In 2019, a new campaign to build pig farms nationwide was launched to restore swine production capacity to normal by the end of 2020. Local officials were given quotas of new pig farms to build and subsidies were issued. Local officials are under pressure to show progress, and indeed they have been reporting breathtaking increases in swine numbers. It's very likely these statistics are exaggerated. Piglet prices remain in the stratosphere and hog prices remain near record levels despite big increases in sow numbers reported in 2020. 

The statistics bureau investigators announced a hot line phone number and an email address for whistle blowers to report statistical abuses at the agriculture ministry.

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