Why China’s figures can’t be trusted – Claude Arpi

Xi & Mao

Claude ApriThe question for the Communist leadership is, can China become a responsible, transparent, modern State, or does Beijing want to continue with the old ways? – Claude Arpi

A few days ago, Boris Johnson’s government was furious with China’s handling of the coronavirus; some UK officials even warned that Beijing will face a “reckoning” once the Covid-19 crisis is over. Mail on Sunday reported that scientists had warned the UK government that China could have downplayed its number of confirmed cases “by a factor of 15 to 40 times”. At that time, China had reported some 80,000 cases of coronavirus.

Old tricks

While the US national security adviser declared that Washington had no way of knowing if Beijing’s figures were accurate, US President Donald Trump said that China’s coronavirus statistics seemed “a little bit on the light side”.

The President’s comments came after a senior Republican lawmaker cast doubt on Beijing’s data and Bloomberg News spoke of a classified US intelligence report which concluded that China had under-reported the total cases and casualties due to the virus. Though he had not read the intelligence report, Trump observed: “The numbers seem to be a little bit on the light side—and I am being nice when I say that—relative to what we witnessed and what was reported.” He admitted that during his recent phone call with President Xi Jinping, he discussed the spreading of the virus, “but not so much the numbers”.

Today, many believe that the Covid-19 is the greatest “natural” tragedy which has befallen China (and the world) since World War II.

However, one should never forget the Great Leap Forward (GLF), a human-made tragedy which recorded 45 million deaths in the Middle Kingdom.

The Great Famine, which followed the GLF, lasted from 1958 to 1962, and “to this day the ruling Communist Party has not fully acknowledged the degree to which it was a direct result of the forcible herding of villagers into communes under the GLF”, wrote Frank Dikötter, the author of Mao’s Great Famine.

In The New York Times op-ed, Dikötter wrote: “Historians have known for some time that the GLF resulted in one of the world’s worst famines. Demographers have used official census figures to estimate that 20 million to 30 million people died. … In all, the records I studied suggest that the GLF was responsible for at least 45 million deaths.”

History of falsehood

In 1958, Mao Zedong had declared that China would overtake Great Britain in 15 years (later on he changed it into 2 to 3 years); the way to do was by setting up thousands of People’s communes; it was to be a disastrous political project.

One of the main reasons for the failure and subsequent tragedy was the forging of the figures. In 1957, the Communist Party started to export excess foodgrain to show off to the world how great the Communist regime was; at the same time the production of grain had been quickly decreasing throughout China, due to Mao’s faulty agricultural policies.

But to please the Great Helmsman and the Party, the local satraps kept increasing the figures and announced bumper crops; according to Wikipedia, “In 1960 state granaries would have 50 billion jin [traditional units of measurement] of grain, when they actually contained 12.7 billion jin. …the grain yield in Gansu declined by 4,273,000 tonnes from 1957 to 1961. This series of events resulted in the illusion of superabundance, in which the Party believed that they had an excess amount of grain they could access; but, the Party was also unaware that crop yields were in fact lower than average.”

Little transparency

In October 1959, the propaganda magazine China Reconstructs showed farmers with the caption “Celebration of the 1958 bumper harvest at a people’s commune in Anhui province.” In 1960, other posters read: “The People’s commune is good, happiness will last for ten thousand years.” Falsifying the figures did not stop. 40 years later, a junior agriculture official lied to Premier Zhu Rongji about some grain harvest figures; then the honest Prime Minister realised how serious the problem of false statistics in China was.

China Youth Daily reported: “Premier Zhu inspected a grain-purchasing station in Nanling county, Anhui province and was delighted to find it full. However, China Central Television revealed that the head of the station had borrowed a substantial amount of grain from other factories ahead of the visit to convince Mr Zhu that he had fulfilled his required purchasing duties.” The official had only met half the required purchase quota and had refused to buy more grain. During his tenure, Zhu tried to stop this Chinese “disease”, but never succeeded.

Still, there is no transparency in China. In 2018, Xiang Songzuo, a professor at the Renmin University School of Finance, wrote that China’s GDP growth would only be 1.67% and not 6.5% as stated by Beijing. According to Chinascope website, Xiang warned, “Chinese have become addicted to playing with debt and high leverage financing. This is a mirage and will collapse.” Ditto for China’s Defence Budget, evaluated to be twice the official figure. There is nothing new about the forged figures in Wuhan, where the number of casualties froze after the Emperor’s visit on March 10.

The question for the Communist leadership is, can China become a responsible, transparent, modern State, or does Beijing want to continue with the old ways? – Daily-O, 10 April 2020

› Claude Arpi is French-born author, journalist, historian and tibetologist. He is the director of the Tibetan Culture Pavilion at Auroville.

Chinese Data Cartoon


2 Responses

  1. The flu pandemic of 1916 is called the Spanish Flu. Nobody, least of all Spain, objects to this term. Yet the flu did not originate in Spain. It is believed to have originated in China and was brought to Spain by rats that infested ships coming from Shanghai.


  2. Wuhan Puppets cartoon

    China and the Wuhan virus – Kanwal Sibal – Daily-O – 7 April 2020

    The Chinese are trying to change the narrative about their responsibility for the origin of the novel Coronavirus under our very eyes. This shows their over-weening self-confidence that their financial means and the world’s need of them as the world’s second-largest economy allows them to cover up their tracks. Over the years they have nurtured lobbies in the political, business, academic, think tank and media circles across the world that are ready to promote China’s case.

    Its effort to sow confusion about the origin of the virus is being resisted in the US because of its effrontery in accusing the US military of planting it in Wuhan. Trump has called it the Chinese virus, but within the US too he has been criticised for his political incorrectness and exposing ethnic Chinese Americans to social prejudice and worse. Major western European countries suffering grievously from the virus do not back the US in calling it the Wuhan virus, which is why the G7 could not issue a joint statement.

    New narratives

    Italy and some East European countries are actually lauding China’s role in helping to combat the virus through supply of masks and testing kits. But there is a push back in some European quarters to astute propaganda that clubs these commercial transactions with some free supplies of masks. The supply of defective testing kits has also dented China’s image. But then, in this hour of dire need and China’s huge manufacturing capacities, even India has placed orders on China for personal protection equipment for medical workers and even for testing kits. It is by now widely accepted that China tried to suppress information about the new virus detected as early as November by calling it rumour-mongering. China allowed countless thousands to move out of Wuhan to the rest of China and many countries abroad.

    When the truth about the virus could no longer be suppressed China acknowledged its emergence, but still tried to tailor the story to its requirements. For this it used the WHO which purveyed China’s story line about the inadvisability of a ban on flights to China and unavailability of evidence of human to human transmission of the virus as Chinese experts believed. For weeks the WHO would not declare the spread of the Coronavirus as an epidemic, much less a pandemic.

    The role of the Ethiopian head of the WHO has come under sharp scrutiny. China, now the second largest contributor to the UN budget, has got its tentacles deeply into the UN system. It helped the WHO DG win the position; it makes large voluntary contributions to the organisation, besides the fact that Ethiopia is a recipient of huge Chinese largesse as a major point of BRI’s entry into Africa. China seems to be extremely sensitive about the virus being associated by name with China. The WHO has obliged by calling it COVID 19. Chinese ambassadors abroad have abandoned diplomatic decency by abusing and threatening those who dare associate the virus with China by name.

    By another name

    Apparently the Chinese Foreign Minister wants India not to label the virus Chinese. Any official departure from WHO’s nomenclature by India would be a politically sensitive issue, but our media, the think tanks, political commentators should have no hesitation in calling it the “Wuhan virus”, which would be accurate as a general description.

    It would be like calling plants not by their technical Latin name but by their common one. Even when the world is facing a crisis that is destabilising global society, the UN Security Council has been unable to meet to discuss the security aspects of the situation. China as a permanent veto-wielding member will not allow it, much less agree to a resolution that should ideally demand a UN probe into the circumstances in which the virus emerged, its spread globally and the acts of omission and commission by China, so as to learn lessons for the future. China will never allow this. It will not also give access to complete data, as it can profiteer from any breakthrough it can achieve in developing an anti-dote for the disease ahead of others. It can then present itself as a saviour and roll in billions to boot.

    Warning to world

    This is the second pandemic that has been unleashed on the world in one generation. The consequences of the Wuhan virus are potentially so devastating for all of us that there is a good case for a “Wuhan tax”, whose contours are best expressed in my verse below:

    A Wuhan tax would be a way
    To make the Chinese leaders pay
    For letting loose this deadly scourge
    Which is most difficult to purge
    So all Chinese exports will be
    Taxed as a form of subsidy
    In special fund will go proceeds
    To spend on the economic needs
    Of populations in distress
    To make the pain they suffer less
    Under international control
    To supplement the World Bank’s role
    To be seen as reparations
    For the travails of all nations
    The world must now have the mission
    To curb Xi Jinping’s ambition.

    Also read: Why Xi Jinping could afford to hide the coronavirus behind the Great Wall of China


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