More from the latest bunch of leaked U.S. diplomatic cables published by WikiLeaks telling us what we already knew but which get piquancy from the detail. In this case, it is a suggestion that provincial GDP data is inflated. Well, hold the phone. The spice comes from the comment being made by Li Keqiang, who at the time, 2007, was Party secretary in Liaoning. He is now a vice-premier in line to succeed Wen Jiabao as prime minister and thus become the man in charge of economic policy.
Like the fictional town of Lake Woebegon created by the American satirist Garrison Keillor where all the children are above average, it has long been a curious fact that no province has let its reported GDP fall below the national average. Local officials’ promotions depend on measures of local economic development. It is no surprise that they add up the numbers in a way that reflects the best possible light on themselves. Nor is that a uniquely Chinese trait.
China’s national GDP figures are more solid, though no economist would pretend they are perfect in either their accuracy or consistency despite efforts to improve them in recent years, many led by Li as it happens. You just can’t manage an economy the size of China’s without accurate data. Nor can China play the bigger role it seeks in multilateral organizations to which it has to report standardized data.
Li, who made his reported comments to the U.S. ambassador at a dinner in Beijing, was talking specifically about his own province but said he got a better sense of its pace of economic growth from monitoring economic activity that could be metered free of a political filter, such as electricity consumption, rail freight volumes and loan disbursements.