China’s already poor reputation on statistics takes another beating


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People at a job fair in Beijing in August (Photo: AFP)

Summary

  • After youth unemployment hit record highs, China’s National Bureau of Statistics halted the publishing of this data

The youth unemployment rate in China has surged to a record high, adding to the pile of evidence showing increasing weakness in the world’s second-largest economy. China’s National Bureau of Statistics has responded by halting the publishing of the youth joblessness rate, citing a need to reassess its methodology.

The real intent, though, seems to be to reduce Chinese citizens’ attention to the worrisome data, given that consumption and investment sentiment is far from upbeat despite Beijing’s announcement of stimulus support for the economy.

“… the economy and society are continually developing. Statistics work needs to keep improving,” the bureau’s spokesperson Fu Linghui said of the decision, adding that the inclusion of students in youth unemployment calculations is being reconsidered.

The youth unemployment rate had hit a record high in April, with 20.4% of people aged 16 to 24 unable to find jobs. It hit new highs of 20.8% in May and 21.3% in June, leading to an overreaction from some Western media commentators, who asserted somewhat prematurely that the Chinese economic miracle was drawing to a close.

The National Bureau of Statistics had started publishing the monthly youth unemployment rate in 2018 to align itself with international standards. But experts have pointed out that it may have been underestimating the actual youth joblessness rate. The international norm, followed by the World Bank and the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), is to use the 15-24 age range when calculating youth unemployment. Beijing, however, only counts those aged 16-24.

China does not enjoy a good reputation for the quality of its official statistics, and halting the publishing of youth unemployment data does nothing to improve it.

Earlier this year, the bureau had come in for sharp criticism after it halted the public release of monthly readings of consumer confidence after March, discontinuing a series it had launched 33 years ago. The surveys of consumer confidence, a closely followed barometer of Chinese households’ willingness to spend, had dived during the covid lockdowns in spring of 2022. It recovered briefly in the early months of this year after the government lifted lockdowns last December, only to drop again, leading to the suspension of its public release.

Through the pandemic too, Chinese authorities were constantly under fire, including from international agencies such as the World Health Organisation which suspected they were underreporting the true infection and casualty numbers.

China’s economic problems are severe. Besides legacy structural issues, its resilience was tested by the government’s draconian zero-covid policy. After an initial spurt, the country’s pandemic recovery has been wobbly.

Demand remains inadequate despite Beijing’s announcement of stimulus support – something the authorities seem aware of, going by their public statements. Rising youth unemployment is just one of the things causing Chinese consumers to feel unsure about the future and wary about spending.

Stagnant wages and a housing market crisis that has caused real-estate prices to plummet have left consumers feeling poorer. Exports, the economy’s mainstay in the high-growth decades, are feeling the pinch of monetary contraction by central banks in advanced countries. In these conditions, it’s hardly surprising that investors and consumers are sitting on cash and business and consumption confidence levels are low. The consumption sector has fallen into deflation as a result.

But hiding inconvenient statistics that capture the seriousness of China’s current economic troubles is unlikely to boost confidence in Beijing’s handling of them, especially with buzzwords such as “lie flat”, “let it rot”, and returning home as “full-time children” reflecting the growing trend of young people choosing to do just the bare minimum or nothing at all. One of the economy’s challenges is the trend of Chinese youngsters in despair, suffering from burnout or disillusioned by dismal prospects for social mobility.

A better response would be for the Chinese authorities to halt their crackdown on job-creating private businesses, especially the digital sector.

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