How Numbers Get Hyped in China

In the previous post Hyping The Numbers: The Case Of The Great Leap Forward, there is this summary of the 'artificial satellite' numbers from the Great Leap Forward era:

The authorities treated the economic development in the same way that they led their armies to battle: they issued orders that propagated down the hierarchy.  They used punishment as a means of obtaining support.  The field situation was reported upwards, based upon how the leaders felt.  Everything the leaders said was right and everything was reported according to the political line.  These people were used to running political campaigns and they are used to having masses of people going along.  So they got what they wanted.  Under this type of system and attitude, it was obviously difficult to get objective and accurate statistics.

An article in Nanfang Weekend magazine provided a more detailed analysis of the structural basis for 'dodgy' statistics.  The question was, Was the root of the problem socio-political in nature or not?  Was it internal or external?  Or is from above or below?  There are three dimensions:

First, the pressure of the target goals caused many base-level cadres to be given "impossible missions."  Using the example of Hangmen County in Hubei province, the county statistical department overstated industrial production value by 420 million yuan in 2003, and then claimed that three out-of-commission factories produced 150 million yuan in value in the first six months of 2004.  For the year 2003, the higher authorities had given Hangmen County an industrial product value target goal of 2.3 billion yuan, the same as the year before.  This figure was approved by the county's representatives to the National People's Congress and it is therefore the "legal standard."  At the end of the year, the base-level officials determined that the actual figure was only 1.9 billion yuan, which was about 400 million yuan short of goal.  What was to be done?  If they reported the actual figure, it would be a blemish on the whole county.  All the party secretaries and the county chief would be criticized, punished, demoted or transferred.  The alternative was to apply pressure on the statistical bureau director to "re-calculate and then report the new figure."  Unless the party secretaries and county chiefs are "too stupid," most of them will opt for this route.  As long as they don't get caught, it is "mission accomplished."

Second, once you jump on the back of a tiger, you can't get off.  If the predecessor inflates the numbers, the successor can only follow suit.  Let us say that the first village leader inflated the industrial income from the actual 300 million yuan to 500 million yuan.  When the second village leader takes over, he can only put in a figure of 600 million yuan or even more.  By the time that the second village leader hands over his job after three years, the number is now up to 800 million yuan.  When the third village leader takes over, he can only keep it going.  Perhaps someone will ask, Why didn't the second or third village leaders report the truth?  If they did that, it would have been a serious violation of the "rules of the game."  In officialdom, it is taboo for a successor to negate the predecessor -- everybody else will despise you, and your superiors can no longer trust you.

Third, it is messy when the sins of the superiors become the responsibility of the underlings.  A lot of people believe that the accounting cheaters are the principal beneficiaries of the deception.  Actually, this is not the case.  When a village leader fakes an account, the principal beneficiaries is not the village leader, but the county leader.  Think about it -- a county may have twenty villages and each village reports an extra 100 million yuan in industrial income, then the county has gained 2 billion yuan as a result.  That is quite a "political accomplishment."  That is why when cheating occurs, it is often done through the subtle hinting from city or county leaders.  When things are going well, I am okay and you are okay; the county leader gets a promotion and the village leaders get promotions too.  When things go awry, the responsibility is borne by the underlings.  Many leaders only 'demand 'figures' from their underlings, but they rarely 'audit figures.'  Actually, auditing the figures is more important than just asking for them.  If you don't audit them, you may not get the facts and you are enabling false accounts.  And how can you formulate the proper policy with a pile of faked numbers?  Therefore, to solve the problem of fake numbers, it is necessary to hold the people at the next higher level accountable.  This is how to strike at the root of the problem.

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