China’s Economic Growth Looks Strong. Maybe Too Strong.

China’s Economic Growth Looks Strong. Maybe Too Strong.

But that growth has come at a high price: rising borrowing that has triggered downgrades of China’s sovereign debt rating by credit rating agencies; severe pollution of China’s air, water and soil; and persistent social problems associated with the movement of tens of millions of workers to cities who had little choice but to leave their children in their hometowns. President Xi Jinping signaled at an important Communist Party meeting in October that he wanted to address some of these chronic problems and that the country should no longer emphasize maximizing economic growth at almost any cost.

A Strange Stability

China annual economic output results have grown increasingly smooth in recent years compared with those from the United States.

China’s annual growth figures are similarly steady. But its quarterly growth figures are suspiciously smooth as well, unlike quarterly growth in many other countries.

Politics are a major reason. Local officials often face pressure to meet targets from the central government.

Increasingly, China is owning up to data shortcomings, particularly in provincial data. The region of Inner Mongolia revealed this month that two-fifths of the industrial production it reported for 2016 did not exist. A year ago, Liaoning Province in northeastern China revealed that local governments had padded their economic growth statistics from 2011 to 2014.

Tianjin, a sprawling metropolis, briefly posted on one of its official websites last week that previous data had been inflated. The post was quickly deleted.

It can work the other way, too: Some economists cite evidence that China also understates its growth during booms to smooth its results.

Slower Than Stated?

The Conference Board’s estimates for China’s economy show a more pronounced slowdown in growth than the official figures.

Economists who try to estimate actual growth tended to come up with lower numbers.

The Conference Board, a business group based in New York, takes data for agriculture, construction and easily counted services, like transportation, as accurate. It then adjusts the official data for irregularities in industrial production and in less easily counted services, like health care.

The result shows Chinese growth to be somewhat lower than reported, particularly in years with weak growth. At the same time, by understating the depth of the slowdown in 2015 and 2016, the official figures also appear to understate last year’s improvement.

The Conference Board’s results suggest the current uptick is real. But it worries that much of the growth has come from recent lending, despite China’s already huge accumulation of debt in previous years.

“We think the recovery is real,” said Yuan Gao, the senior economist in the Beijing office of the Conference Board. “We’re just concerned that a lot of it is built on bad debt.”

Parsing the Numbers

A long-running effort to adjust official Chinese figures for year-over-year quarterly G.D.P. growth suggests the economy goes through booms and busts much more than reported.

Diana Choyleva, an economist at Enodo Economics in London, also produces growth figures that are below the official results.

Many economists, including Ms. Choyleva, believe Chinese officials understate how much prices rise in China. That tends to overstate growth.

Once she adjusts official figures based on price data and seasonality, she finds that the Chinese economy tends to track Beijing’s stimulus efforts, which tend to produce booms, and its moves to curb unsustainable lending, which tend to produce slowdowns.

China’s statistical issues go beyond mere government meddling. The country’s economy is vast and quickly changing. Officials still struggle to catch up with years of growth and with modernizing data gathering practices.

“It’s just simplistic to say they lie or they don’t lie,” said Pauline Loong, the founder and managing director of Asia-analytica, a Hong Kong consulting firm specializing in mainland China. “They define their data differently, and they keep changing their definitions.”

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