China's Top Statistics Official Defends Economic Data Accuracy

  • New head of statistics bureau faced doubts on data quality
  • "The GDP we published is genuine and credible": Wang Baoan

At his first press briefing releasing China’s annual economic growth, the head of the nation’s statistics authority was prepared for questions over the veracity of his data.

"The GDP we published is genuine and credible," said Wang Baoan, the new head of the National Bureau of Statistics, citing tax data that supports the readings and the size of his survey team, which tops 20,000 people. That was in response to reporters’ questioning as to whether the reported full-year expansion pace of 6.9 percent reflected reality.

With China compiling its full-year report card far quicker than most major economies and past discrepancies fanning controversy, analysts have long questioned whether authorities inflate or smooth out economic readings. This time around, gauges of old growth pillars such as heavy industry and property investment show a more sluggish picture, while there’s less data available on better-performing new growth drivers like services.

"China’s GDP calculation is based on solid and accurate basic data," said Wang, who became head of the NBS in May last year, at the briefing when a reporter mentioned that some analysts see the real growth number at below 5 percent.

When asked about the rapid expansion of the services sector, which accounted for 50.5 percent of total output last year, Wang quoted numbers from tax authorities: 54.8 percent of total tax revenue last year came from the services sector, as did 80 percent of the increase in tax receipts.

Such comments didn’t prevent some economists from still questioning the data’s validity.

Poor Gauge

"The official GDP figures have become a poor gauge of the economy’s performance in recent years and now overstate growth by a wide margin," Julian Evans-Pritchard, a China economist at Capital Economics Ltd., wrote in a note Tuesday. He estimated the actual growth rate last quarter was 4.5 percent, compared to the NBS’s announced 6.8 percent.

Another reason analysts are dubious of China’s data is the political weight the nation’s leaders attach to published economic growth rates. The Communist Party vowed to double 2010 output and income levels by 2020, a goal President Xi Jinping has stressed needs an average 6.5 percent expansion pace in the next few years to achieve.

Credibility Problem

"I don’t understand why they bother to put out data that no-one believes," Li Junheng, the founder of JL Warren Capital, a China-focused research firm, wrote in an e-mail. "It undermines the credibility of other data they put out and that might not be doctored."

Wang also defended the survey-based unemployment reading, a figure Premier Li Keqiang has said he monitors. It was at 5.01 percent in December, a drop from September, Wang told reporters after the briefing.

The figure is accurate and credible, he said, because it is based on surveys of 160,000 households, an "unprecedented" sample size that is much larger than that of other nations.

— With assistance by Xiaoqing Pi

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