China is reporting big successes in the coronavirus fight. Don’t trust the numbers.
China has reported fewer and fewer confirmed coronavirus cases over the past three weeks, culminating in a statement that Wuhan had seen zero new local cases for four days in a row, from March 18 to 21. Elsewhere in China, 46 new cases were reported on March 22, all but one attributed to travelers arriving from abroad.What can we learn from Chinese statistics, and can we trust those numbers?Numbers have long defined Chinese politicsChinese officials pay particular attention to numbers, especially key statistical measures such as GDP growth, fiscal revenue and investment, which have long been core parts of the Communist Party’s system for evaluating officials. Positive evaluations unlocked bonuses, promotions and other rewards for officials that met specific targets.China’s system of limited, quantified vision focused on these indicators out of a belief that close monitoring would generate effort and good results. Decades of rapid economic growth testify to the system’s success — but also gave officials incentives to misrepresent the truth and falsify statistics or look to achieve them through wasteful means.Here’s an example. Research I published in 2016 shows that provinces reported jumps in GDP growth around the times local officials came up for promotion, but they weren’t