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Nobody Knows Anything About China

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As a foreigner in China, you get used to hearing the retort “You don’t know China!” spat at you by locals. It’s usually a knee-jerk reaction to some uncomfortable modern issue or in defense of one of the many historical myths children in the mainland are taught as unshakeable facts about the world. But it’s also true. We don’t know China. Nor, however, do the Chinese — not even the government.

We don’t know China because, in ways that have generally not been acknowledged, virtually every piece of information issued from or about the country is unreliable, partial, or distorted. The sheer scale of the country, mixed with a regime of ever-growing censorship and a pervasive paranoia about sharing information, has crippled our ability to know China. Official data is repeatedly smoothed for both propaganda purposes and individual career ambitions. That goes as much for Chinese as it does for foreigners; access may sometimes be easier for Chinese citizens, but the costs of going after information can be even higher.

We don’t know the real figures for GDP growth, for example. GDP growth has long been one of the main criteria used to judge officials’ careers — as a result, the relevant data is warped at every level by local officials. If you add up the GDP figures issued by the provinces, the sum is 10 percent higher than the figure ultimately issued by the national government, which in itself is tweaked to hit politicized targets. Provincial governments have increasingly admitted to this in recent years, but the fakery has been going on for decades. We don’t know the extent of bad loans, routinely concealed by banks. We don’t know the makeup of most Chinese financial assets. Sometimes we don’t know the good news of recoveries because the concealment of bad news beforehand has disguised it. We don’t know China’s real Gini coefficient, the measure of economic inequality.

But economic data may be, ironically, more reliable than most just because so much attention has been paid to its unreliability. China’s National Bureau of Statistics itself has repeatedly called out instances of bad data reportage and now attempts to gather provincial data directly itself. There have been clean-ups and attempts at rectifying past mistakes — although the increasingly ideological and paranoid turn of the party-state may be obstructing these efforts.

But what we don’t know goes far beyond just economics. Look at any sector in China and you’ll find distorted or unreported public information; go to the relevant authorities and they’ll generally admit the most........

© Foreign Policy