School · Tingking Out Loud

Misleading data of China, to get ahead or hide vulnerability?

Generally, when we talk about China, no matter if you have been there or haven’t had the chance yet, what are the images and words that pop up in your head about China?

Made in China? AliExpress? It is a big country? There are a lot of Chinese people? Chinese food? Panda? Pollution? Economic growth? Maybe all of them? Or something else.

From an economic point of view, many people are putting a lot of attention on the relationship between China and the US. Who is going to be the next superpower? Who will be the next leader?

A lot of us are very much focused on the numbers and figures when talking about the economy and the next world leader. But is published data about China misleading, or China’s data is misleading? Anyone ever thought about that?

First of all, what is data? Are we only talking about numbers here?

Data is more than just numbers, according to the dictionary, data is “individual facts, statistics, or items of information”. (Data, 2017)

Langs de oevers van de Yangtze

When VPRO introduced the documentary “Langs de oevers van de Yangtze” in 2016, it was a huge success in the Netherlands, over 1 million people watched it on TV on the day it was released (Tomas, 2016). The documentary aims to reflect the contrasts in China: the rich and the poor; the modern and the tradition; the cities and the rural; the advantages and disadvantages of China’s economic reforms.

As a native Chinese viewer, I was disappointed by this documentary, I had the feeling the point of view was very subjective. They tried to emphasize the bad aspects rather than the good ones. However, they choose to interview and document certain events in this film and is it possible to make a generalization based on this documentation? Why do they think the clips reflect the real situation in China?

In my opinion, Ruben (the director of the documentary) sometimes used manipulative words and loaded questions in Chinese to his interviewees which made the data he collected biased.

“Do not frame a question to fit a headline that you hope to write.” (Silver, 2012)  

I also thought this documentary can be misleading sometimes, it sends certain signals to the audience, especially for the ones who have never been to China, they would believe what was being broadcasted.

But, what if I was being very subjective as well? That I only want people to know the good things instead of the bad things? We always take an angle to share our part of a story, that is in fact very misleading.

“Our brains, wired to detect patterns, are always looking for a signal, when instead we should appreciate how noisy the data is.” (Mayer, 2002)

Shanghai, Shanghai

Now, let’s take my hometown Shanghai as an example, which was in the first episode of Langs de oevers van de Yangtze. I was born in 1990, on the other side of the Huangpu River, you were barely able to see any skyscrapers; by the time I went to the Netherlands to study (2010), there were skyscrapers, lights, lively nightlife on the other side of the river.

And this is how Shanghai looks in 2017: (can you spot the difference? Let me know in the comment!

China GDP growth slowdown

One thing is for sure the economy is growing rapidly in China. However, does China still grow as much as when it started its economic reforms in 1978? Did China’s GDP slow down?

When you type “China GDP growth slowdown” in Google the following top 8 search results pop up, mostly reported by renowned news channels such as the Guardian, Bloomberg, the BBC and so on. As you can see, there are 2 highlighted titles stating “China’s economic growth slowest in 25 years”, but one was talking about 2015, the other one was about 2016? So how do we calculate the 25 years exactly? Which number should we believe? Aren’t they a bit misleading?

As a matter of fact, China has a history of smoothing data in its growth figures (S.R., 2015), the current premier Li Keqiang, once said, that local GDP data were man-made and therefore unreliable.

During the time of the Asian financial crisis in 1998, China’s actual GDP growth was close to 5% while it was claimed to be 7-8%. In early 2000, when China’s growth was in fact close to 10%, it was reported to be 8-9% (S.R., 2015).

Why always around 8%? Is that because 8 is the lucky number for most of the Chinese people?

Now, let’s take a look at the graph below, especially at the year 2000, while The Economist thought the GDP growth that year was close to 10%, The Wall Street Journal indicated around 9%, and the Chinese government said about 8-9%. Confused? Yeah, me too. One might say, the differences between these 3 numbers are not that big, so why bother? Well, because we shouldn’t be misled by different data. 1% more or less on GDP growth reflects much more than just the number, 1.

Also, why would China understate the actual growth? Why mislead the public when China was actually doing better than the publicly shared numbers? One possibility proposed by The Economist is that the Chinese government wanted to downplay its strength to avoid arousing anger at the time (S.R., 2015).


“Quantitative subjective assessments are almost always biased, sometimes completely misleading.” (Poulton, 1977)

What are the reasons for this misleading data? Is it because the Chinese government and the various news outlets have to form an opinion? Or is there no actual truth to this matter?  

On the other hand, Bai, Mao and Zhang (2014) have confirmed that a systematic bias of concentration estimation with censored survey data in China. It is particularly important for rapidly industrializing and developing economies such as China, to accurately reveal the real trend when only sampling survey data are available (Bai, Mao & Zhang, 2014). Furthermore, Yang, Li and van Heck (2015) indicated that improved information transparency can lead to higher levels of traders’ dynamic interactions, and the information is the key in a prediction market. “Traders’ dynamic interactions refer to a trader’s revision of buy or sell orders on contracts.” (Yang, Li & van Heck, 2015)  

Taking China’s GDP as an example, is it ok for countries to mislead other nations in order to get ahead or hide vulnerability in the global economy?







8 thoughts on “Misleading data of China, to get ahead or hide vulnerability?

  1. Really interesting topic!! It just makes me think of how probably every country shares some numbers to mislead others and maybe get some gains in the world stage. I like how your statement makes us think about economic stability or growth, but just think of all the numbers and statistics used to mislead people that might have ended up in wars for example? Perhaps war is a little extreme, but misleading information contributes to people getting the wrong information and thus affecting their decision making. It is funny as well how everyone has a certain image of China and how that might change now after knowing the actual numbers.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I like your topic and the structure of your blog. You are a good storyteller. It is true that a lot of people have an image of China that is created by the media. It is nice to see you took the Shanghai example from the TV programm. The difference is shocking! It is super that you fact-checked the GPD of China, good resource job!
    I do not think it is OK for countries to mislead others. If you present something like a GPD, people assume it is a fact. Since it is a number. Data should not mislead others, but the way the story around the data is told can be a bit framed maybe. However, framing the data doesn’t make it OK to lie. In my opinion, lying is never OK.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Very nice blog you wrote. I like your writing style and the way you added a personal note to it by applying it to media about China. To me, the use of ‘framed’ or ‘misleading’ data in general is a bad thing, and should thus be avoided. However, there might actually be some situations in which a majority of people could benefit from not knowing the ‘actual’ numbers. China for example might want to downplay its strength to avoid a war between two intercontinental super powers (e.g. US and China). If this is the case, this would not only benefit China, but people from both parties, and could therefore be seen as a moral act. However, I believe the use of misleading data is very often (if not always) a matter of power and benefits for the own country and economy – probably also in the case of China misleading its GPD. Although the use of misleading data occurs a lot in everyday life and in way smaller interpersonal circles as well, I think nations in particular should be aware of the possible, widely ranging consequences of it.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. I really like the topic and how you added a personal note to it! I personally do not think it is ok to mislead with numbers in any situation. Numbers are most of the times interpreted as facts. I think it is kind of shocking to see how different an image pictured by a documentary can be from the image someone knows from living somewhere. I think misleading data is often a matter of power for the country and economy, which might also be the case with the GPD number in China.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. This blog gave such an interesting insight! I was one of the people who watched the documentary about China, and I did really like it at the time. I think because I had never had a good mental image of the way China is right now, and what it looks like right now compared to the historic information i learned from books. The daily lives of normal Chinese people is never shown in such a video format, without a frame of “factory workers from the country side” for example. Learning that the documentary frames China in a very negative way is very revealing to me, and I now wish i knew more! Maybe you should make a documentary 😉

    I think the statement about the lying in the GDP is strange. I’m not sure how lying in statements that are shared as facts could be seen as positive.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. You chose a very nice subject to write your blog about, since it is very personal and you actually are the ‘other perspective’ in this documentary. I haven’t seen the documentary, but the way I heard you talk about it, gave me a good idea of why it got to you. The way media can put certain places in a certain perspective bothers me a lot as well. I come from the East of the Netherlands and the media likes to put us in the ‘clumsy farmers’ (lompe boeren) perspective, which is not (always) true. We do not go to school by tractor etc. But that is what makes this so difficult, because perspective is so important in this case. And this case shows again how important it is to always look at stories and news from different perspectives.

    Looking at your statement: I absolutely find that a country can never lie about there GDP. Numbers are numbers, and it would have been very nice to read that these at least were correct.. unfortunately 😦

    Liked by 1 person

  7. Interesting topic on (misleading) data! You ask a lot of questions in your blog, I like your writing style but for me there were too much questions that were unanswered. I also would’ve liked more information on the Yangtze part because I think that is very interesting. I agree with the other students that lying about your GDP for whatever reason is still lying and misleading.


    1. Hey, thanks for the comment. I am not fluent in Dutch so it is difficult for me to follow the whole Yangtze documentary. I did watch some parts with the help from Dutch friends. And I took Shanghai as an example because it is also my hometown and I thought it was a good way to bring up the GDP issues. Hope this clarifies the fact I didn’t include more about the Yangtze documentary.


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