The List

China’s Lies, Damn Lies, and Secret Statistics

Besides pollution figures, what else is Beijing trying to keep hush-hush?

Beijing makes no secret of its secrecy. While the government has become much less controlling than it used to be, information that doesn't suit Beijing's larger purposes still gets withheld, while information that doesn't quite suit its purposes is often polished until it does. Only last month, an op-ed in the state-run newspaper Beijing Daily exposed local reporters displaying a shameful inclination towards balanced journalism. "Chinese media interested in negative news have been seduced into wrongdoing by Western concepts," it fumed.

China's sensitivity about its control of the bad-news agenda was highlighted once again this week when Beijing publicly chided the U.S. embassy for measuring Beijing's sometimes "crazy bad" air pollution and publishing the data on Twitter. The damage is limited: although many expats and web savvy Chinese can still access it, Twitter is blocked in China. Nonetheless, the U.S. embassy smog readings are embarrassing for the Chinese government, whose own pollution measures tend to be much more favourable.

But pollution is just one of the items on the propaganda hit list. Anything that might shed some light on policy failures, social ills, or even the personalities of the country's leaders is liable to be altered or suppressed. Here, then, are six of Beijing's bad-news taboos.

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1.  Economic data

The growth of the Chinese economy is a good-news story that has generally required only light touches of the censor's red pen, but with an expected slowdown in China's economy coupled with the world economy more dependent on Chinese growth than ever before, the markets would love to get a closer look at China Inc.'s books to reassure themselves that the economic miracle is predicated on numbers that add up. Honesty is key to market confidence, and Beijing has been open in reporting many of the worrying indicators, such as weak manufacturing output, emerging about its economy's medium-term prospects.

Yet there are suggestions that Beijing is becoming less, not more, transparent when it comes to the economy. Recently, the government began withholding financial reports about Chinese companies from foreign investors -- information that it previously made available. And in May, Beijing ruled that the local affiliates of the "Big Four" international auditing firms must be managed by Chinese nationals by 2017 if they want to continue auditing Chinese company accounts. This follows the resignation last year of a number of Western auditors working on Chinese company books after they claimed to have discovered irregularities.

If Beijing is anticipating a run of grim economic data, its natural inclination may be to keep more and more statistics out of the public domain. In 2007, a government report was commissioned detailing the economic cost of the environmental damage suffered as a result of the country's modernization, featuring data from both the State Environmental Protection Administration, and the National Bureau of Statistics (NBS), the governmental agency that compiles the government's social and economic statistics. Senior government figures evidently found it uncomfortable reading, and never released the data.

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2. Crime

China has become more realistic about its law-and-order problems since the supposedly crime-free days of Mao's socialist utopia. Beijing's official data claims that non-violent crime is on the rise but also that the murder rate dropped by half from 2000 to 2009.

So eyebrows were raised in 2010 when a government think tank, the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, reported that violent crime had risen for the first time in a decade. The admission came in response to a string of violent incidents, often involving multiple random homicides, which shocked the general public and made it impossible for Beijing to ignore. But social scientists were sceptical about the claim that violent crime had only just started to increase. Their inevitable question: Were the crime figures being massaged all along?

Part of the problem may be that the crime-reporting procedures used by China's police are out of date. A sense of sympathy for violent criminals in an increasingly angry society is also a disturbing development that the government wants masked. Earlier this year, the Communist Party's newspaper People's Daily asked Chinese netizens how they felt about the brutal murder of a doctor in the northeast city of Harbin: two thirds said that they were "happy" about the case. That was definitely too much public information for Beijing, and the story was quickly deleted from the newspaper's website. 

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3. Social unrest

Chinese society is undergoing wrenching change, and the widening gap between rich and poor is one of Beijing's foremost policy concerns.

The government is open about the disparity in urban and rural incomes. However, in one version of the story, the wealth gap is narrowing: According to the NBS, the ratio of urban to rural incomes across China shrank to 3.13 to 1 in 2011 from 3.33 to 1 in 2009. But in other versions of the wealth-gap story inequality is getting worse -- especially when one factors in the undisclosed income of the urban rich. Even the state media have cast doubt on the NBS figures, with China Daily asserting in April that "policies and measures have failed to reverse the widening income gap."

Beijing has also become wary of publishing data about the "mass incidents," as it describes them, which are often triggered by abuses by officials in the provinces. Individual cases such as last year's uprising in Wukan -- the village in Guangdong that successfully ousted its corrupt local leaders -- occasionally attract international attention. But countless similar episodes throughout the Chinese countryside (not least in restive Tibet and Xinjiang) are going largely unreported. Foreign journalists often estimate that around 100,000 "disturbances" erupt in China annually. Beijing likely knows the real figure, but isn't telling.

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4. Leader's Personal Lives

China's leaders are fiercely protective when it comes to their own private realm. So while ordinary Chinese citizens know who President Hu Jintao is, and possibly what his wife's name is, virtually no meaningful information about their personal lives filters through to the public domain. State media portrays the country's leaders as one-dimensional figures defined only by their official careers and by their all-consuming desire for people's welfare; a Chinese journalist was sacked for reporting the "state secret" that Hu has diabetes. Compare that to the reams of pages published about the private lives of the Obamas, and you get the idea.

What do they have to hide? In some cases, a staggering amount. Occasionally, when the Communist Party feeds one of its own to the media monster for transgressions too extreme to deal with internally, we catch a glimpse of the colorful lives these people sometimes lead. Bo Xilai, for example, makes John Edwards look like a choirboy: The story of the ex-Politburo member's recent downfall is lurid with accusations of murder, conspiracy, corruption, and embezzlement. The stories that are openly reported are extraordinary enough: the Communist Party official who had his mistress assassinated; the former railways minister kicked out of the Party in May for supposedly stealing $157 million; the princeling who literally thought he could get away with murder in 2010 because his father was the deputy chief of police of a mid-sized city.

The latter case was an object lesson for the government: its attempts to suppress the story backfired, and it ended up going viral. The message was that blanket censorship doesn't always work. It's better instead to protect the core by sacrificing a few hopeless cases at the fringe. But how the Party decides which individuals to protect, and which to throw to the wolves, we simply don't know.

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5. Mega-projects

Data on China's extraordinary feats of engineering are plentiful. The span of the world's longest sea bridge in Qingdao, the generating capacity of the Three Gorges Dam, the speed of the Shanghai Maglev: We know all sorts of details about these projects, as it's a source of great pride.

But when the gloss rubs off these prestige projects, the information flow can quickly dry up. After years of popular misgivings about the environmental impact of the Three Gorges Dam -- the observed effects ranging from earthquakes to landslides to drought -- the government finally admitted in 2011 that it had major concerns about its flagship engineering project. However, detailed environmental data have yet to emerge; the assumption is that they would make horrible reading for the millions of people who live nearby.  

Similarly, the fiasco of China's ambitious high-speed rail program was publicly acknowledged last year after a crash near Wenzhou killed 40 people. Only in the face of a public outcry triggered by the deaths and the ham-fisted apologies of railway officials did another truth come out: that the project was being run by a group of corrupt individuals who were determined to roll out the network as quickly as possible, regardless of the safety implications and the exorbitant financial costs. The once-feted program has now largely dropped out of the news, as China scales back its original ambitions for a national high-speed network.

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6. Tragic histories

China is hardly unique in struggling to come to terms with the mistakes of the past. However, while the Communist Party advocates self-criticism, only so much criticism of the Party's blunders can be tolerated for fear of undermining its legitimacy. Thus discussion of the most painful episodes in China's modern history -- the Great Leap Forward, the Cultural Revolution, and the crackdown in Tiananmen Square -- remains strictly circumscribed.

The government possesses detailed demographic records dating back to the 1950s, courtesy of its extensive network of Public Security Bureaus (effectively local police stations). This data, alongside other government records, could provide a more accurate estimate of how many people died as a result of government purges and the famines caused by Mao's disastrous economic policies. But Beijing won't open the files for public viewing any time soon.

Information continues to leak out about the much more recent Tiananmen massacre. Back in 1989, then Beijing mayor Chen Xitong blamed a "tiny handful of people" for provoking the government's "correct" actions. In early June of this year, however, the terminally ill former official declared that Tiananmen was "a tragedy that could have been avoided and should have been avoided." For a government struggling, and perhaps failing, to control the Tiananmen narrative, it was another piece of bad news. Clearly, the U.S. embassy's pollution tweets are the least of the government's information worries.

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