Statistics crucial to policymaking and credibility

PUBLISHED : Monday, 01 March, 2010, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 01 March, 2010, 12:00am

Lies, damned lies and statistics.' For years, economists and ordinary mainlanders alike have had serious doubts over the accuracy and credibility of their official statistics. It has become a recurring joke at this time of year, when the National Bureau of Statistics and its branches release national and regional economic growth figures for the previous year.

This invariably shows that the addition of the gross domestic product figures announced by the provinces and municipalities is far greater than the value of national gross domestic product - which reached 33.5 trillion yuan (HK$38 trillion) last year.

To the bureau's credit, it has admitted that the mainland's data-gathering mechanism needs improving and blamed local officials for padding figures to further their careers. It has deployed its own data-sampling teams nationwide to improve the accuracy and reliability of the data, rather than relying solely on the figures supplied by the regional authorities.

But the improvements have been slow coming. On Thursday, the bureau released the economic growth figures for last year and again invited national ridicule.

The focus is on its data showing that property prices in 70 large and medium cities, a national benchmark, rose a mere 1.5 per cent last year, of which prices for new residential flats were up 1.3 per cent and prices for the secondary market were up 2.4 per cent.

This has elicited a slew of comments on the internet and even some state media in the past few days, after both economists and ordinary mainlanders expressed disbelief and dismay.

For most of last year, particularly the latter half, scientific sampling and data gathering were not needed to see that property prices soared nationwide, particularly in the large and medium cities, mainly helped by the central government's 4 trillion yuan economic stimulus package.

Even the bureau's own statistics dispute what has now become infamous data. In the first 11 months of last year, sales of commercial properties rose 53 per cent to 750 million square metres, and combined sales revenue was up 86.8 per cent to 3.6 trillion yuan. Based on the figures, some economists have estimated that the average prices rose at least 22 per cent during the period.

Indeed, property prices have risen so much and so fast that it has become a national concern, forcing the central government to issue a series of measures aimed at cooling down the red-hot market since the beginning of this year.

During a rare online chat with internet users on Saturday, even Premier Wen Jiabao acknowledged the growing frustrations over soaring property prices and promised to increase supplies and build more affordable housing projects to bring the prices down to a reasonable level.

But he also cautioned that he was not entirely sure that even with those measures, he could rein in 'this runaway wild horse'.

It goes without saying that the accuracy of the data is crucial not only to policymaking but also the government's credibility.

The statisticians should waste no time in giving detailed explanations on how this 1.5 per cent rise in property prices came about, or risk further damage to their credibility.

But this latest example is one of many demons the mainland's statisticians must deal with. No other statistics have invited more ridicule than the calculation of the unemployment rate.

The government began unemployment registration in the early 1980s when the state-owned enterprises started to streamline, but the data covers only urban dwellers and excludes farmers. Roughly, the way it works is that all the jobless urbanites are required to register with the labour departments of the areas where their household registrations are based.

As a result of the rapid economic growth, hundreds of millions of farmers have flowed to the cities to live and work, and are classed as migrant labourers.

According to estimates, there are about 230 million migrant workers on the mainland, including 150 million in the big cities. Many tens of millions of them have moved their entire families to the cities.

But the government has refused to revamp the way unemployment is calculated and for it to cover migrant labourers who live in the cities, denying them benefits once they lose their jobs.

This has long made the mainland's official jobless rate irrelevant and the purpose of its existence is merely political. According to the Ministry of Human Resources and Social Security, which is responsible for compiling and releasing jobless figures, the government managed to hold the jobless rate at 4.3 per cent last year, compared with 4.2 per cent in 2008.

The figures sound utterly false and ridiculous. The global economic crisis started to hit the mainland in the latter half of 2008, forcing many firms to shut down or cut production, leaving many urbanites jobless, let alone the migrant labourers. According to official estimates, up to 25 million migrant workers lost their jobs during the height of the crisis last year.

Mainland leaders have repeatedly said that as the economy gets stronger, the government will focus on boosting the welfare of the poor and disadvantaged. A major step in that direction would be to include migrant labourers in the unemployment rate.