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Economy

China sparks suspicion as it holds release of statistics

Concealment added to whispers that Beijing doctors figures

The Great Hall of the People in Beijing. The Chinese government's reporting of economic and demographic data is stirring distrust.    © Getty Images

BEIJING -- China is suspending the release of some economic statistics, provoking suspicion that it is concealing some inconvenient truths. The conjecture comes on top of long-standing accusations that China's figures are perhaps not that accurate.

A case in point is the Guangdong provincial government's monthly purchasing managers index, which covers local manufacturers. It is released separately from the PMI compiled by the National Bureau of Statistics.

The Guangdong index started to attract attention in August because it fell below the make-or-break 50-point mark, signaling contraction, for the first time in two and a half years.

The index's downtrend since last spring was especially notable because it comfortably exceeded 50, indicating growth, at 53.4 in March. Analysts speculated that the direction may have to do with the escalation of the U.S.-China trade war, as Guangdong has a concentration of companies exporting to Europe and the U.S. According to the statistics bureau, the number of money-losing local manufacturers increased by 19% from a year ago, with their combined losses increasing 66% year on year, in the first nine months of this year.

But when Nov. 1, the scheduled release date, rolled around, no October PMI was released by the Guangdong government. Asked about the data, a spokesperson of the local government said it had been delayed due to a system update.

On Dec. 3, the Guangdong government said on its website that it stopped releasing its PMI data in November after the statistics bureau announced in late October that it will start centrally conducting PMI surveys.

China's statistics bureau has stopped disclosing birthrates, which has confused demographers and other experts.

The monthly Export Leading Indicator by China's General Administration of Customs reflects data including new orders and costs at exporters. A spokesperson has customarily given a briefing on trade statistics once every three months using this indicator. But the administration stopped announcing the indicator after the release in April. It did not respond to queries about the reason.

China also stopped disclosing data regarding the exports and imports of crude oil, cars and other major items by country and region since the data for April, making it difficult to make a detailed analysis of the kinds of products China imports from and exports to the U.S.

The total value of China's imports and exports already exceeded the full-year figure for 2017 as of mid-November, the country's customs administration said on Nov. 30, in the run-up to the U.S.-China summit in Argentina. The authorities may have wanted to stress that the effect of the trade war with the U.S. was minor, but it will not be possible to win trust if it continues to disclose only data that is convenient.

The "China Statistical Yearbook 2018," published in November, did not contain the usual table showing how many babies Chinese women had in the year, tracked by age group. With that data, one can estimate the country's total fertility rate -- the average number of children per woman of childbearing age. The country last published the table in the statistical yearbook for 2016.

China's total fertility rate was 1.18, according to the 2010 census. An official of the then National Health and Family Planning Commission, which was tasked with birth control, said the rate was actually about 1.6 because many people do not register their babies to avoid being fined for violating the one-child policy.

However, the country's fertility rate calculated from statistical yearbooks has remained 1.0-1.2 since 2010. The rates in 2016 and 2017, the basis for discussion for demographers and others, were not released.

China's statistics show that President Xi Jinping's enthusiasm for statistical reform is real. Xi stressed the importance of disclosing fair and accurate data at the National People's Congress in March 2017 when he visited the subcommittee meeting of Liaoning Province, at which falsification of data was revealed. After Xi's comment, the gap between gross domestic products of smaller municipalities and the central government closed rapidly.

The "tell-all" page, which the statistics bureau began disclosing on its website in September, uncovers how statistics were falsified. For example, data on 36 fixed asset investments in Luyuan District, Changchun, Jilin Province, was false, according to a survey in December 2017.

Whistleblowing would have been difficult without the backing of the leadership. It shows Xi's strong commitment to resolving the country's statistics problem.

China stopped disclosing statistics just when data sets thought to be inconvenient to the authorities -- sluggish trade statistics and falling birthrates -- were about to be released. If officials stopped releasing statistics to please Xi, the practice could run counter to the direction of the president's reforms. Statistics simply reflect a country's actual condition. Hiding statistics will only deepen suspicions about the country's true state.

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