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LTN: The Illusion of China’s GDP

Major Taiwanese news network Liberty Times Network (LTN) recently published a commentary on China’s Gross Domestic Product (GDP) authored by Yen Qingzhang (顏慶章), who served as Taiwan’s Minister of Finance and was the first ambassador of Taiwan to the World Trade Organization (WTO). Below are some key points made in the article.

GDP has become the main data point for measuring national output and economic activity across the world. China’s official records state that, in 1985, the country’s State Council gave approval for the National Bureau of Statistics to calculate China’s GDP using the System of National Accounts (SNA) methodology recommended by the United Nations. However, on March 18, 2022, China’s National Supervision Commission for Central Discipline Inspection (中央紀委國家監委) officially stated that “in recent years, the National Bureau of Statistics has resolutely investigated and dealt with statistical violations of disciplines and laws, but the problem of persistent statistical fraud is still relatively prominent.”

In 2019, a joint publication by University of Chicago Economist Xie Changtai and three scholars from the Chinese University of Hong Kong concluded that China’s economic data, including industrial exports and investment amounts, have been skewed for a long time. The paper indicated that China’s annual GDP growth from 2008 to 2016 was exaggerated by an average of two percentage points per year. Cumulatively, the official figures for 2016 are exaggerated by 16 percent, equivalent to more than US$1.5 trillion.

The tragic truth of China’s economic development, putting aside controversy around GDP exaggeration, is that the “achievements” of China’s economic growth have not resulted in accumulation of national wealth. To the contrary, the country’s wealth has been hollowed out. First, as far as residential construction and real estate are concerned, there are as many as 60 million empty housing units. What a waste of GDP! Second, investment by local governments in public facilities, originally an important factor driving local GDP, has been corrupted to the point of being unusable with the passage of time. Although future demolition of unnecessary construction projects will contribute to GDP, such demolition will not create any real wealth. Third, public investment by the central government in major projects such as China’s highspeed railway system have suffered from major losses. The highspeed railway’s income can only compensate for its electricity consumption, and by the end of 2022 the railway system’s liabilities totaled RMB 6 trillion (around US$0.834 trillion).

Source: LTN, July 23, 2023