Can We Trust China’s Official Statistics?

A major concern of students of Chinese politics is the reliability of the Chinese official statistics, especially those from the township and village levels. The quality of the published data might come with a large question mark. Generally, statistics on current issues are collected by the National Bureau of Statistics on special requests of the Party Central Committee and the State Council. Obviously, a local Party cadre can signify local achievements in order to make a favorable impression on his or her superiors, or exaggerate a particular social problem in order to receive more resources. Because none of this process is likely to be available to the public, the exaggerations or errors made in local statistics would thus be aggregated at the national levels.

Moreover, when researchers go to the field to collect data, they might be constrained by the local Chinese government officials. It is true that in some cases, local governments would host and support researchers by providing a car and connecting potential interviewees. Researchers, however, must conduct field surveys in a manner that are acceptable to the party-state, and their contents are limited to politically acceptable questions. They even have to unwillingly accept the government’s deliberately-assigned interviewees who, presumably, will give all the right answers. As a result, “academics who study China habitually please the Chinese Communist Party, sometimes consciously, and often unconsciously…to collect data and co-author research” (Holz 2007). This would also lead to poor-quality data.

Thus conceived, one needs to be particularly cautious when conducting field work and collecting data in China. It is better for researchers to identify potential questions from official documents, statistics, and media reports before going to the field, and validate them by direct and independent observations to uncover non-official facts.

 

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