How China’s next prime minister keeps tabs on its economy
Dec 9th 2010 | HONG KONG | from PRINT EDITION
IF CHINA’S deputy prime minister, Li Keqiang, succeeds his boss, Wen Jiabao, in 2013, as is likely, he will become his country’s top economic policymaker. But he may not pay much heed to the figures provincial officials feed him. In 2007 he told America’s ambassador that GDP figures in Liaoning, where he was then party chief, were “man-made” and unreliable, according to a State Department memo released by WikiLeaks.
Provincial officials have long been suspected of overstating growth. Adding their figures together suggests that China’s economy was $364 billion bigger in 2009 than the total in the national accounts. Mr Li preferred to track Liaoning’s economy by looking at other indicators: the cargo volume on the province’s railways, electricity consumption and loans disbursed by banks.
In Mr Li’s honour, The Economist has created a “Keqiang index” for China’s economy, combining his three preferred indicators (see chart). It reveals an economy that is as dynamic as the official figures suggest, but a great deal more volatile. Electricity consumption and cargo traffic both shrank in the final months of 2008 and in early 2009, implying that China’s economy suffered more grievously than the official figures allow. A loan surge in 2009 presaged the rapid recovery that followed.
It should come as a relief to all those who doubt China’s economic statistics (ie, just about everybody) that the people in charge of its economy do not entirely trust them either.