Question Beijing's Numbers? So Does Beijing.

Chinese Vice Premier Li Keqiang

(photo courtesy Chinatoday.com)

As a reporter in China, you're presented with a lot of numbers. A routine interview with a government official is laden with them. Once while reporting a story on organic farming, a local official took two hours to explain a novel-length brochure of annual provincial yield figures. His smiling assistant poured cup after cup of tea to prevent me from entering a comatose state. So it was a relief for me this morning when I discovered that one of China's highest ranking officials isn't paying attention, either. But he's got a better reason. Apparently, some numbers are just made-up.

According to a leaked diplomatic cable from 2007 published by Wikileaks, Chinese Vice-Premier (and top contender for China's next Premier) Li Keqiang told then-ambassador Clark Randt he didn't trust China's GDP figures. At the time, Li was communist party secretary of the province of Liaoning. Here's a snippet from the leaked diplomatic cable:

4.(C) GDP figures are "man-made" and therefore unreliable, Li said. When evaluating Liaoning's economy, he focuses on three figures: 1) electricity consumption, which was up 10 percent in Liaoning last year; 2) volume of rail cargo, which is fairly accurate because fees are charged for each unit of weight; and 3) amount of loans disbursed, which also tends to be accurate given the interest fees charged. By looking at these three figures, Li said he can measure with relative accuracy the speed of economic growth. All other figures, especially GDP statistics, are "for reference only," he said smiling.

Hear that, economists? From now on, whenever you'd like reliable data about China's economic growth, bother China's National Bureau of Statistics for electricity consumption figures, rail cargo volume, and disbursed loans. Put them in a hat, mix them up, and you've got China's GDP growth. Done deal. Here's my second favorite part of that leaked cable:

On several previous occasions, he traveled widely in the United States, visiting both coasts and the Midwest. Li said he particularly liked Oklahoma.

Go Sooners.

About the author

Rob Schmitz is Marketplace’s China correspondent in Shanghai.

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