Slower but steadier?
The economy may be nearly one-seventh smaller than officially reported
FOR A COUNTRY that is regularly accused of manipulating its statistics, China is remarkably diligent about collecting them. The government has dispatched two million boffins to visit companies, stores and even street stalls in the first few months of this year, as part of a new national economic census. Ads plastered on billboards implore people to co-operate. In a flashy promotional video on its website, the national statistics bureau warns that any fabrication of data is against the law.
But these laudable efforts do not appear to be solving the basic problems with Chinese statistics. A new paper, by Chang-Tai Hsieh of the University of Chicago and three co-authors from the Chinese University of Hong Kong, finds that industrial output and investment have been consistently embellished. As a result, they argue that China overstated real GDP growth by two percentage points on average every year from 2008 to 2016 (see chart). Over time that adds up: official figures for 2016 would have exaggerated the size of the economy by 16%, or more than $1.5trn.
但这些值得称道的努力似乎未能解决中国统计数据存在的根本问题。芝加哥大学的谢长泰和香港中文大学的三位学者共同撰写的一篇新论文发现，工业产出和投资数据一直被篡改润色。他们认为，其结果就是从 2008 年到 2016 年，中国 GDP 增速平均每年被夸大了两个百分点（见图表）。如此不断积累，到 2016 年，中国经济规模的官方数据就夸大了 16%，即虚高了超过 1.5 万亿美元。
These economists are certainly not the first to question Chinese numbers. But their paper, published by the Brookings Institution in Washington on March 7th, deserves attention because they had better access to the statistics bureau than most. Though they worked only with public data, they knew where to shine a light. They looked at how revenues from value-added tax on industrial firms compared with reported growth of industrial output. Until 2007 the two lined up well. But after 2008 gaps opened up, although they have narrowed a bit in recent years. The authors also built an alternative model for measuring growth using indicators that cannot be easily manipulated, including satellite imagery of night lights, railway cargo and imports, and came to the same conclusion.
这些经济学家当然不是最先质疑中国官方数据的人。但他们的论文（由布鲁金斯学会于 3 月 7 日在华盛顿发表）尤其值得关注，因为他们比大多数人拿到了更多的统计局数据。虽然他们使用的只是公开数据，但他们知道从哪里发现问题。他们比较了工业企业增值税收入与官方公布的工业产出增长数据。直到 2007 年，两者都是非常匹配的。但 2008 年后，差距开始出现，尽管近年来幅度略有缩小。论文作者还建立了一个替代模型，使用不易操纵的指标来衡量增长，包括反映夜间照明的卫星图像、铁路货运量以及进口数据，并得出了相同的结论。
Those sceptical of China’s data sometimes assert that its statisticians have the power to fiddle with numbers to present their desired outcome. The authors argue that the problem is the opposite: that at the central level they lack the power to correct for the misdeeds of other officials. It has long been noted that provincial GDP totals, when added up, exceed national GDP. The national bureau is alert to this and so adjusts provincial figures by, for example, collecting data through separate channels.
怀疑中国官方数据的人有时认定，中国的统计官员有权力篡改数字以呈现自己想要的结果。该论文的作者认为问题恰恰相反：在中央层面，统计官员无力纠正其他官员的不端行为。人们早就注意到，中国各省 GDP 的总和超过了全国 GDP 数据。国家统计局对此有所警觉，因而通过从独立渠道收集数据等方式来调整各省数据。
Yet from 2008, when the global financial crisis struck, the adjustments failed to keep up with the distortions, the paper says. For provincial leaders the incentives are clear: their chances of promotion depend on reported economic performance, which they can embellish. Since they rank above the statistics bureau politically, only the bravest beancounter would dare stand in their way. Tellingly, only after crackdowns on corruption in provinces such as Liaoning and Inner Mongolia did authorities admit that their data had been inflated. If the authors are right, these cases are a small sample of a wider epidemic.
There is, however, a silver lining. Local and national figures for consumption are closely aligned. It is mainly industrial output and investment that are exaggerated. The downward revisions therefore result in a substantially different picture of the shape of China’s economy. The authors find that investment, properly measured, was 36% of GDP in 2016, not 43%, as the government says. Debt as a share of GDP is higher than officially reported, but the return to capital is not as low as feared and consumption is more prominent as an engine of growth. Looked at this way, the Chinese economy is smaller but better balanced and thus, perhaps, more resilient.
然而仍有好消息。地方和全国的消费数据相当匹配。被夸大的主要是工业产出和投资数字。因此，向下修正数据会呈现一个大不相同的中国经济形势。论文作者发现，按正确方式衡量，2016 年投资占全国 GDP 的比重应为 36%，而非政府公布的 43%。债务占 GDP 比重则高于官方数字，但资本回报不像人们担心的那么低。而消费作为增长引擎的实际表现更为突出。从这个角度来看，中国经济的规模是缩小了，但也更均衡，因而也可能更加强韧。