HONG KONG – As the Chinese economy continues to sputter, prominent corporate executives in China and Western economists say there is evidence that local and provincial officials are falsifying economic statistics to disguise the true depth of the troubles.
Record-setting mountains of excess coal have accumulated at the country’s biggest storage areas because power plants are burning less coal in the face of tumbling electricity demand. But local and provincial government officials have forced plant managers not to report to Beijing the full extent of the slowdown, power sector executives said.
Electricity production and consumption are considered a telltale sign of a variety of economic activity. They’re viewed by foreign investors and even some Chinese officials as the gold standard for measuring what is really happening in the country’s economy, because the gathering and reporting of data in China isn’t considered as reliable as it is in many countries.
Indeed, officials in some cities and provinces are also overstating economic output, corporate revenue, corporate profits and tax receipts, the corporate executives and economists said. The officials do so by urging businesses to keep separate sets of books, showing improving business results and tax payments that do not exist.
The executives and economists roughly estimated that the effect of the inaccurate statistics was to falsely inflate a variety of indicators by 1 or 2 percentage points. That may be enough to make very bad economic news look merely bad.
The executives and economists requested anonymity for fear of jeopardizing their relationship with the Chinese authorities, on whom they depend for data and business deals. The National Bureau of Statistics, the government agency in Beijing that compiles most of the country’s economic statistics, denied that data is overstated.
Some still express confidence in the official statistics. Mark Mobius, executive chairman of Templeton Emerging Markets Group, cited the reported electricity figures when he expressed skepticism that the Chinese economy had real difficulties. “I don’t think the economic activity is that bad – just look at the electricity production,” he said.
But an economist with ties to the agency said officials had begun making inquiries about the authenticity of some data after detecting signs that electricity numbers may have been overstated.
Questions about the quality and accuracy of Chinese economic data are longstanding, but the concerns now being raised are unusual. This year is the first time since 1989 that a sharp economic slowdown has coincided with the once-a-decade changeover in the country’s top leadership.
Officials at all levels of government, from provincial party secretaries down to county administrators, are under enormous pressure to report good economic results to Beijing as they wait for promotions, demotions and transfers to cascade down from Beijing.
A top corporate executive in China with access to electricity grid data from two provinces in east-central China that are centers of heavy industry, Shandong and Jiangsu, said electricity consumption in both provinces had dropped more than 10 percent in May from a year earlier.
Rohan Kendall, the senior analyst for Asian coal at Wood Mackenzie, the global energy consulting firm, said that coal stockpiled at Qinhuangdao port had reached 9.5 million tons this month, as coal arrives on trains faster than it is needed by power plants in southern China.