Friday, April 9, 2021

Statistics and Politics Intertwined in China

A simple recipe for statistical flim-flam: pour one cup of random numbers into a bowl, sprinkle with political slogans, fold in statistical algorithms and reams of paper to taste, mix vigorously, and bake until the ingredients are indistinguishable. The final product tastes like cardboard and has no calories or protein, but government officials and bureaucrats will nevertheless grow fat on a steady diet of this concoction.

Last month China's statistics bureau presented itself to the United Nations as a technocratic government organization while at home celebrating its role as an inherently political organization. 

On March 1 and 5, a delegation from China's National Bureau of Statistics (NBS) participated in a videoconference with the UN statistics committee where the Bureau pledged to participate in statistical monitoring of 2030 sustainable development goals, international big data, improvements of national accounts, environmental accounting, geographic information systems, and household surveys. 

On March 16, the Bureau hosted a signing ceremony for an agreement between China and the UN on the Trust Fund for Statistical Capacity Building, a project funded by the World Bank since 1999 to improve collection and reporting of statistics in the developing world. NBS Director Ning Jizhe thanked the UN officials--including a UN undersecretary who is a retired official from China's Foreign Ministry--for their support. Ning endorsed the Trust Fund's function of spreading internationally-accepted statistical methods and practices. Ning bragged about China's own achievements in statistical capacity-building in developing countries. 

On March 17-19, Ning took up his role as secretary of the statistics bureau's communist party organization as he visited statisticians in Shandong Province to encourage them to study communist party history. In his visits to the Rizhao City Fortune Center, port, companies, and an e-commerce industrial park, Ning urged businessmen to grasp opportunities in technical areas like big data, cloud computing, industrial internet, and digital technology. Here, he seemed to be carrying out his other job as deputy director of the National Development and Reform Commission (running the National Bureau of Statistics for the second-largest economy in the world is apparently only a part-time job).

On March 29-30, Ning was in full political mode as he led a delegation to study communist party history in an Anhui Province "revolutionary base" where he stressed the importance of implementing Xi Jinping's important discourses on statistical work. Ning participated in a communist party celebration in Jinzhai County's Dabieshan, one of the places that launched China's communist rebellion. Ning placed flowers at a monument to revolutionary martyrs, recited his oath to the communist party, and visited the county revolutionary museum. 

Statistics Bureau Director Ning Jizhe and comrades renewed their vows to the communist party.

At Jinzhai County, Ning proclaimed that studying communist party history is a major affair in political life. Ning urged statisticians to inherit the "red genes" of Dabieshan's revolutionary spirit, draw wisdom and strength from the revolutionary course of hard struggle, continue to strengthen statistical investigation capacity, and strive to modernize statistics. 

Ning sent a subtle message to local statisticians to shape up by making a "special trip" to visit a small town statistical station and the county survey team in Jinzhai. Ning thanked the local statisticians for their work and observed that grass roots statisticians who collect and report basic data are the foundation of the statistical system. Ning then exhorted local statisticians to upgrade the quality of their work, urging them to focus on scientific standardization and to improve the truthfulness and accuracy of their source data. 

In plain language, Ning's implied message might be stated like this: "Our data sucks because you local people at the bottom of the pyramid are inflating your numbers and making careless mistakes; we're helpless up here in Beijing until you guys clean up your act." 

But maybe it's the system's fault for incentivizing statisticians to turn out statistical flim-flam. Ning himself--simultaneously serving as statistics boss, communist party leader, and top official in the country's planning agency--embodies the intertwining of politics and statistics in China that guarantees bogus data. From top to bottom, statistics are a tool, not an objective measure of the world. In Beijing, statistics must demonstrate the success of the party's policies. At the bottom of the pyramid, statistics pad the resumes of local leaders, generate bonuses and lead to promotions. The promotion is usually to another place, so the promoted leader couldn't care less about the true state of affairs in his/her current location. 

Statisticians don't dare report data that fail to show success. Producing data that reveals problems or demonstrates the impotence of policies is not a good career move. Successful bosses may move on to a more powerful position or desirable city and take a few statisticians along. There is no reward for accuracy or rigor. Officials, journalists and academics who also are beholden to the party will quote the numbers without asking questions. It's illegal for any other organizations to collect their own data, so there is no worry that someone might point out errors or fraud. The system incentivizes fraud, sloppiness, and tourism disguised as training and political education. 

Now we're going to make international policy on climate change and try to judge prospective food supply and demand based on numbers generated by this system. Moreover, China plans to provide technical assistance in statistics to the developing world. Uh oh.

Statistics are always and everywhere at risk of becoming meaningless numbers. The production of meaningful data depends as much on separating statisticians from political influence and exposing their data to independent scrutiny as it does on sophisticated algorithms and powerful computers. You can count on that.


Godfree Roberts said...

"The production of meaningful data depends as much on separating statisticians from political influence and exposing their data to independent scrutiny as it does on sophisticated algorithms and powerful computers. You can count on that”.

China's stats have been exposed to independent scrutiny for 70 years and, guess what? They're solid.

Serious folk can find extensive independent scrutiny here:

The quality of China's GDP statistics☆ by Carsten A. HOLZ ⁎
Stanford Center for International Development, Stanford University.

Quality of China's Official Statistics: A Brief Review of Academic Perspectives
Dmitriy Plekhanov

Anonymous said...

To Godfree's comments...

If China's stats were not false, then how did they do a 10 year revision of their grain production 3 years ago and discover an entire 1 year's production.

China's stats are regularly subject to massive revisions when the musical chair's tune stops and there is no more acceptable excuse for the disparity.