FP wrote:As a foreigner in China, you get used to hearing the retort “You don’t know China!” spat at you by locals. It’s usually a knee-jerk reaction to some uncomfortable modern issue or in defense of one of the many historical myths children in the mainland are taught as unshakeable facts about the world. But it’s also true. We don’t know China. Nor, however, do the Chinese — not even the government.
We don’t know China because, in ways that have generally not been acknowledged, virtually every piece of information issued from or about the country is unreliable, partial, or distorted. The sheer scale of the country, mixed with a regime of ever-growing censorship and a pervasive paranoia about sharing information, has crippled our ability to know China. Official data is repeatedly smoothed for both propaganda purposes and individual career ambitions. That goes as much for Chinese as it does for foreigners; access may sometimes be easier for Chinese citizens, but the costs of going after information can be even higher.
We don’t know the real figures for GDP growth, for example. GDP growth has long been one of the main criteria used to judge officials’ careers — as a result, the relevant data is warped at every level, since the folk reporting it are the same ones benefitting from it being high. If you add up the GDP figures issued by the provinces, the sum is 10 percent higher than the figure ultimately issued by the national government, which in itself is tweaked to hit politicized targets. Provincial governments have increasingly admitted to this in recent years, but the fakery has been going on for decades. We don’t know the extent of bad loans, routinely concealed by banks. We don’t know the makeup of most Chinese financial assets. Sometimes we don’t know the good news of recoveries because the concealment of bad news beforehand has disguised it. We don’t know China’s real Gini coefficient, the measure of economic inequality.
But economic data may be, ironically, more reliable than most just because so much attention has been paid to its unreliability. China’s National Bureau of Statistics itself has repeatedly called out instances of bad data reportage and now attempts to gather provincial data directly itself. There have been clean-ups and attempts at rectifying past mistakes — although the increasingly ideological and paranoid turn of the party-state may be obstructing these efforts.
But what we don’t know goes far beyond just economics. Look at any sector in China and you’ll find distorted or unreported public information; go to the relevant authorities and they’ll generally admit the most shocking practices in private.
We don’t know the true size of the Chinese population because of the reluctance to register unapproved second children or for the family planning bureau to report that they’d failed to control births. We don’t know where those people are; rural counties are incentivized to overreport population to receive more benefits from higher levels of government, while city districts report lower figures to hit population control targets. Beijing’s official population is 21.7 million; it may really be as high as 30 or 35 million. Tens — perhaps hundreds — of millions of migrants are officially in the countryside but really in the cities. (Perhaps. We don’t know the extent of the recent winter expulsions of the poor from the metropolises.) We don’t know whether these people are breathing clean air or drinking clean water because the environmental data is full of holes.
We don’t know anything about high-level Chinese politics. At best, we can make — as I have — informed guesses. We don’t know how the internal politics of Zhongnanhai, the Chinese Kremlin equivalent, operate. Chinese politicians don’t write tell-all memoirs; Chinese journalists can’t write a Fire and Fury, a What It Takes, or even a Game Change. We don’t know whether Xi Jinping truly values China’s wealth and power or only his own.
We don’t know whether the officials targeted in the “anti-corruption” campaigns were really unusually corrupt, lascivious, or treacherous — or whether they were just political opponents of Xi. We don’t know the extent of factionalism within the Chinese Communist Party, though we do know how often its existence is condemned — by Xi and his faction. We don’t know whether officials who lather slavish praise on Xi actually believe anything of what they say or are acting out purely out of fear and greed.
We don’t know what people really think. We don’t know whether interviewees really support the government or give cautious answers when asked questions by a stranger in a politically repressive country. We don’t know why Chinese tell pollsters they are more trusting of others than any other country in the world, while in practice paranoia about the intentions of others is so rampant that old people aren’t helped on the streets for fear they’re running a scam and children like toddler Wang Yue are left to die after being hit by cars.