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 project provides a broader picture of the GDP indicator in the Chinese context. It addresses four themes covering the development, rise and fall, of GDP measurement and political uses in China since the late 1970s until today.


Is Chinese engagement challenging traditional measures of the economy?


How GDP traveled to China  

It examines how GDP reached China in the first place. As a ‘latecomer’ to GDP measurement, it 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 does the case differ from other countries?   

The Chinese GDP Target 

Second, the project zooms in on the most well-known Chinese political goal, the GDP target. It traces the process of how a foreign and capitalist indicator became the symbol of China’s modernization. Beside outlining the normative power of the indicator it also highlights the (unintended) consequences of the GDP target. 

Challenging GDP – Alternative Indicators 

Third, the project also brings the Beyond-GDP debate to China. It sheds a light on the criticisms GDP has received in the West and asks to which extent discontent with the GDP indicator has driven 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 reflects on the ambitions, willingness and possibilities of China to alter GDP measurement. It analyzes the post-crisis interaction of Chinese statisticians and other Chinese stakeholders inside the international statistical community. Is Chinese engagement in this expert-driven field challenging our traditional measures of the economy?