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by Arnold James in Beijing

For most of the past 30 years, the Communist Chinese government has hidden and manipulated the country’s vital statistics so many times that it would be hard to blame anyone for not believ- ing a single figure they issued.

Only with the rise to power of Deng Xiaoping in the past few years has there been a change for the better and a realisation that solid economic progress cannot be built on phony figures.

The national census carried out in July last year was the first real attempt to make use of this new “Seek Truth From Facts” approach to statistics, and the error factor in the final figure of 1.008 billion people in mainland China was allegedly only 0.015 per cent.

Five million census-takers were put on the job for that operation, and computers and United Nations experts were enlisted in the effort to come up with an accurate figure.

This conscious striving for accuracy was a welcome approach, and a far cry from the days of the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution, the darkest days for China’s small band of trained statisticians, when figures were simply invented, and transmitted up through the bureaucracy and occasionally to the outside world by people who knew full well that the whole thing was a farce.

Local officials told their superiors what they wanted to know, and the outside world was generally told nothing except perhaps a percentage increase from a base figure that was a state secret.

“Statistics workers had to report whatever party and govern- ment leaders required or else they would be rebuked for ‘deviating to the Right’,” said one writer. “The total grain output of the whole country (in 1958) was only 400 billion catties but it was falsely reported from different localities to be 1,000 billion catties.”

Even the late Chairman Mao Tsetung, not known in the last couple of decades of his life for economic realism, could see …

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