“The issue is less important when everything’s rosy,” said Patrick Chovanec, a business professor at Beijing’s Tsinghua University. “It gets more sensitive when people are trying to assess just how deep this downturn is and whether China’s facing a hard landing.”
For foreign economists, suspicions about why such numbers are off — and by how much — often boil down to a Rorschach test of sorts for how they view the Chinese government: as a developing nation honestly struggling with statistical challenges or as a sinister actuarial force always prepared to stretch the truth to meet its goals.
Regardless of motivation, some experts say the biggest danger in all this inaccurate data may be domestic, especially if it leads to bad policy decisions by Chinese leaders wrestling with how to manage a complex, dynamic economy.
“It’s like driving a car on a road where the traffic lights don’t work,” said Wei Yao, an economist at Société Générale bank in Hong Kong. “How do you make monetary policy for example if you can’t accurately tell if inflation is too high or too low? It all relies on statistics.”
The latest round of accusations over trade data began in January after analysts compared China's reported December exports to other available information, including corresponding import numbers from surrounding countries. Little of it matched up. Analysts’ characterizations ranged from the gentle, noting “anomalies,” to insulting cries of “ridiculous” and “obvious errors.”
Amid such uncertainty, a booming cottage industry of analysis has sprung up, mostly produced and sold by by foreign analysts. They sift through obscure though often more reliable government data — looking at things such as electricity usage, rail freight traffic, air travel and the footage of floor space being built.
Even the man taking over China’s economy — incoming Chinese premier Li Keqiang – supposedly disparaged his government’s Gross Domestic Product figures, calling them “man-made,” according to a leaked U.S. diplomatic cable from 2007, and saying he too relies on rail-cargo, bank-loan and power-consumption data.
But that information can also be manipulated. Once power consumption became a favored indicator, for example, news reports began circulating last year that tallies of coal usage and other elements of energy production were being tampered with.