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In-depth Analyses
How reliable are (population) statistics from China?
The history of (population) statistics in modern China Tables & Charts
In her book China's Changing Population, Judith Banister vividly described the history of China's statistical system since 1949 (Banister, 1987). Her analysis is still relevant today, because it reminds us that for more than 30 years - between 1949 and the early 1980s - statistical data was an instrument of political propaganda and manipulation or not availble at all. This lack of reliable statistical information not only led to some embarrassing misinterpretations of China's development in the West, it also hurt the capacity of China's ruling elite to obtain an unbiased view of what was going on in the country. Basically, we can distinguish six phases in the development of modern China's statistical system.  
Phase One: 1952 - 1957  
During the First Five-Year Plan, China made some progress in introducing a modern statistical system. The State Statistical Bureau, established in 1952, began to collect and publish economic and demographic statistics to monitor and control the planned economy. In the early years of the Republic, China's leaders obviously considered statistics useful for demonstrating the superiority of the communist system. At that time, it was not so much intentional manipulation of data as the lack of adequate methods and properly trained personnel that threatened the validity of the statistics. The State Statistical Bureau was not only purified of bourgeois elements, but also of competent statisticians trained before 1949. The government also failed to introduce the principle of independence between statistical reporting and economic or social control. Communist cadres and local leaders were primarily responsible for collecting statistical information, an arrangement that was the basis of massive data manipulation in later years.
It is not surprising that the first Chinese population census from 1953 produced only few valid results. The processing of detailed results obviously overwhelmed the technically inexperienced statisticians. The policy of suppressing official statistics also started at this time. Some of the results of the 1953 census were published only decades later.
Phase Two: 1958 - 1961  
When the communist rule of China approached the end of its first decade, the gap between its plans and reality had widened so much that it was necessary to implement some drastic measures. If the statistics did not show the great success of the communist system, the statistics had to be changed. The Central Statistical Bureau and its director were criticized, and communist party cadres became responsible at all levels for reporting essential data. Politics took command over the statistical system of China, which began to disintegrate. When Mao Zedong launched the fierce economic campaign for rapid industrialization in the Great Leap Forward, the crippled statistical system reported what the leaders wanted to hear. The famine during this Great Leap Forward was partly the result of grossly inflated agricultural production statistics, which lulled the national leaders into self confidence and prevented the timely implementation of crisis relief efforts.  
Phase Three: 1961 - 1966  
In 1961 a brief period of reform and reconstruction started with the appointment of professional statisticians as heads of the State Statistical Bureau. Shocked by the disaster of the Great Leap Forward, Chinese politicians obviously wanted greater autonomy and professional competence in the statistical system. Zhou Enlai spearheaded these efforts by explicitly forbidding party and government departments to change statistical figures. The freedom did not last long. Only a few years later the State Statistical Bureau was accused of "revisionism." These accusations prepared the ground for the destruction of China's central statistical system during the Cultural Revolution.  
Phase Four: 1966 - 1983  
The darkest chapter in the statistical system of modern China started with the Cultural Revolution in 1966. In an effort to "purify" the communist system, intellectuals and professionals, including statisticians, were criticized, punished, and removed from their work. Thousands were ordered to perform hard physical labor in rural areas. The Central Statistical Bureau was practically closed down. Large amounts of statistical material were burned. Only after the death of Mao in 1976 and the imprisonment of the Gang of Four, was statistical work slowly resumed. However, almost nothing was published in subsequent years and the statisticians were extremely careful not to come into conflict with the party line.  
Phase Five: 1983 - 1987  
The year 1984 marks a watershed for China's (population) statistics. In that year, a new national statistics law took effect, which for the first time in modern China provided a legal basis for a system of national statistics. It gave the State Statistical Bureau and its provincial branches responsibility for collecting all kinds of statistics, making it possible to standardize information gathering, monitor quality, and introduce modern methods of sampling and data processing. The law explicitly forbids all political interference with the statistical data, especially the frequent practice of local or regional cadres to revise unpleasant statistical figures.
In 1983, the State Statistical Bureau for the first time released some detailed data from the 1953 and 1964 censuses, providing essential information for analyzing the validity of the 1982 census. A wealth of population data was released in subsequent years, particularly from the 1982 census, but also from previous censuses and surveys for which the records were still available. In this period, for the first time foreign scholars had access to detailed statistical information, including population data by age, sex, and province, and annual mortality and fertility estimates by age and sex. These data made it possible for demographers to reconstruct the demographic history of the People's Republic of China, including the famine-related deaths during the Great Leap Forward (see, e.g., Ashton et al., 1984; Peng, 1987; Banister, 1987). The traumatic consequences can still be seen in official Chinese population statistics (see Figure 1).
Crude Birth and Death Rates, 1949 - 1997
Figure 1
Phase Six: Since 1987  
Since the late 1980s, when China began its policy of economic reforms and opening up to the outside world, there has been a "golden age" of (population) statistics in China. A large amount of population data is now published, most of it available to foreign researchers. For instance, the 1982 and 1990 censuses, which are generally considered highly reliable data sources on the demography of China, were published in great detail; many tables from the 1990 census are even available in electronic form on CD-ROM. Banister and others have conducted detailed analyses on the reliability of the last two Chinese censuses. They found, for instance, that age reporting was exceptionally accurate, especially for a developing rural country (Fang, 1990, 1991; Zhang, Sai et al., 1990).  
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Revision 2.0 (First revision published in 1999)  - Copyright 2011 by Gerhard K. Heilig. All rights reserved. (First revision: Copyright 1999 by IIASA.)