The People’s Daily and a fake chart

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The People’s Daily responds to a dodgy chart  

The People’s Daily reports (in Chinese) on a chart that was recently circulating online that purports to show how much of the total GDP of various countries comprises “administrative expenses.” The chart apparently states that 70 percent of China’s total economy is government expenditure on administrative costs, while by comparison, the U.S., Japan, Germany, and Britain spend less than 10 percent. In addition, the chart claims it is based on data from a UN agency.

First problem: The People’s Daily says that the UN agency mentioned by the chart does not exist. Fake data.

Second, the numbers are complete nonsense. A quick look at the World Bank’s data on China’s general government final consumption expenditure as percentage of GDP shows that between 1960 and 2015, the figure fluctuated between 11 and 17 percent, never higher. And that number, per the World Bank, covers much, much more than admin costs: it includes “all government current expenditures for purchases of goods and services (including compensation of employees),” as well as “most expenditures on national defense and security.”

The chart is easily debunked, and although the People’s Daily says it “sparked a heated debate,” it certainly did not cause a noticeable debate on social media. And yet, the editors at the Party’s venerable house newspaper felt the need to write more than 1,800 characters and quote various experts to refute a piece of internet nonsense.

So why did the People’s Daily care enough to write an editorial, and to feature it prominently on its website’s politics and current affairs channel? Perhaps it’s just because it’s Chinese New Year, and there’s no news except that people are feasting and arguing with their families, while Xi Jinping is on a poverty alleviation tour straight out of the Party template.

Here’s my theory for the sensitivity to this subject: People’s Daily editors — like most thinking people in China — can never quite shake the feeling that the government is just a little too involved in just a few too many things.

Here’s how far that involvement goes: Party and government entities are replicated throughout the country from village to county to city to provincial and national level. The Party demands control of NGOs, religious groups, media, and lawyers. And whereas in the 1990s and 2000s, the state backed away from the management of private companies, the last decade can be characterized with the phrase 国进民退 guó jìn mín tuì — the state advances and the private sector retreats. The state is subsidising and supporting the enterprises it owns, and pushing large private companies to “play with the national team” by installing in-house Party branches.

The government’s hand is in every pie, and that’s not always a pleasant feeling.

A personal note on ubiquitous government

The photo below shows me, in the fall of 1997, looking at a propaganda board in Ruoqiang Town, in Xinjiang — about as close to the middle of nowhere as I have ever been. This was long before the rise of the digitally enabled surveillance state in Xinjiang that has been in the news lately. But Ruoqiang was already part of an efficient nationwide system for spreading government messages to even the most remote and inconsequential corners of the People’s Republic.

The hand-drawn characters on the board below are about learning from and implementing the spirit of the 15th Party Congress, which had just concluded a few days previously on September 18. Jiang Zemin had been reappointed Party general secretary, and the Party constitution had been amended to include Deng Xiaoping Theory as a guiding ideology alongside Marxism-Leninism and Mao Zedong Thought.

This is what the scenery around Ruoqiang looks like:

And this… That blob in the picture below is my friend on a bike — we were cycling along the route sometimes called the Southern Silk Road.

This seemed to be the major local industry:

But even here, in the desert, before the internet or mass mobile telephony, Party messaging from Beijing was being reproduced on chalkboards according to a template.

Below is the Xinhua Bookstore in Ruoqiang. Aside from local maps, and the Uyghur-language versions of many of the books, the selection was the same as you’d find in any state-owned bookstore across the country.

Note the Uyghur script: It’s a hybrid of pinyin and Cyrillic introduced in the 1950s, and then phased out in the 1980s to return to the Arabic-based letters currently in use in Xinjiang.

Here is a family planning propaganda poster, in the middle of the desert. Note that the couple has two children: As minorities, Uyghurs were allowed more than one child even during the height of the one-child policy.

A few months later, also in the middle of nowhere, but in Tibet: Deng Xiaoping Theory on bilingual propaganda boards:

I ended that trip in Kathmandu. During nearly a year of cycling around Xinjiang, Qinghai, and Tibet, from Kashgar to Lhasa, Altay to Yili, Golmud to Lhasa, right until the border with Nepal, I was never able to escape the nearly ubiquitous, and remarkably consistent messaging from the Party.  

On that note, it’s time to eat dumplings. All the best for the Year of the Dog from all of us at SupChina.

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—Jeremy Goldkorn, Editor-in-Chief


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The Year of the Dog

A dog walks on the Ancient Tea Horse Road in the village of Shuhe, Yunnan Province. Today marks the first day of the Year of the Dog. The dog is an auspicious animal, symbolizing loyalty and the good fortune.

Jia Guo