Indicators in China


Joan van Heijster


China has become one of the most powerful countries in the global economy. But its enormous transformation during the past decades makes it hard to grasp the evolving shape of its economy. The formulas and measurements that OECD countries use are ambiguous already; in the case of China, it is even less clear what gets measured in official indicators, and why. To be sure, China has signed up to many international standards, for example the System of National Accounts. But as so often, the devil is in the detail, and real measurement decisions are made at the national level. So how does China measure its economy? And what are the political dynamics behind the choices it has made in this respect?   

GDP as lodestar for development   

After China’s opening up and reform, its economic development has been almost exclusively defined in terms of GDP. Even today, although criticized by a variety of stakeholders, the indicator is still deeply integrated into China’s economic and political governance system in the form of targets. Because of the political prominence of the indicator, the project takes GDP as the research’s focal point. Debate of Chinese statistics has concentrated on the credibility of GDP figures. This subproject has provided a broader picture of the GDP indicator in the Chinese context. It has addressed four themes covering the development, rise and fall, of GDP measurement and political uses in China since the late 1970s until today.


Has Chinese engagement challenged traditional measures of the economy?


How GDP traveled to China  

This subproject has examined how GDP reached China in the first place. As a ‘latecomer’ to GDP measurement, it had only officially adopted the System of National Accounts in 1993 after having measured GDP figures since 1985. How did the ‘late’ adoption of international standards influence China’s GDP measurement, and how has this case differed from other countries?   

The Chinese GDP Target 

Second, the project has zoomed in on the most prominent Chinese target, GDP growth. It has traced how a foreign and capitalist indicator has become the symbol of China’s modernization. Beyond outlining the normative power of the indicator, it has also revealed the (unintended) consequences of the GDP target. 

Challenging GDP – Alternative Indicators 

Third, the project has brought the Beyond-GDP debate to China. It has shed light on the criticisms GDP has received in the West and asked to which extent discontent with the GDP indicator has driven - or not - the development of a plethora of new indicators by the Chinese national statistical office.  

China in Global Indicator Governance 

Finally, in light of the debate about China’s rise in global governance, the project has reflected on the ambitions, willingness and possibilities of China to shape GDP measurement beyond its own borders. It has analyzed the post-crisis interaction of Chinese statisticians and other Chinese stakeholders inside the international statistical community. Has Chinese engagement in this expert-driven field challenged our traditional measures of the economy?