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At the National People’s Congress, the politics of numbers dominates. What those numbers mean for China and the world.

From GDP to poverty alleviation and renewable energy, the Communist Party is obsessed with numbers. Which matter most in the Xi Jinping era?

China’s annual National People’s Congress began this weekend in Beijing with the typical fanfare. The thousands of delegates who make up the world’s largest legislature streamed in from across the country. Technically, they come to vote on legislation and elect new government officials, but in reality the meetings are more of a performance — the actual decisions have been made well in advance by China’s top leaders.

This year’s opening speech — as is usually the case — was a collection of Communist Party slogans and statistics, a presentation that makes an American State of the Union address look like a Hollywood production. Perhaps the most human moment came when Li spoke about the pandemic: “Our people in their hundreds of millions have prevailed over many difficulties and challenges, made great sacrifices and played their due part,” Li said. “It has not been an easy journey for anyone, but together we have overcome the huge challenge of covid-19.”

No number is more closely anticipated — in China and beyond — than the GDP (gross domestic product), the prime metric for economic growth. The National People’s Congress is the occasion for publicly announcing the growth target for the year ahead — and this weekend that target was announced as “around 5 percent.” For observers, it was a low-end forecast, one that signals caution about China’s economic recovery from the pandemic and the “zero-covid” policy that decimated jobs and factory activity. GDP in 2022 clocked in at just 3 percent growth, among the lowest figures in decades and short of China’s 5.5 percent target by a wide margin.

Few scholars have paid as much attention to the party’s fixation on targets and statistics than Jeremy Wallace, a professor of government at Cornell University. Last fall, Wallace published “Seeking Truth and Hiding Facts,” a book that examines the politics of numbers in China. The book’s title is a reference to former party chairman Mao Zedong’s edict — “seeking truth from facts” — a phrase that Mao’s successor Deng Xiaoping used to criticize the leader’s excesses years later. The phrase is still used today; it was even mentioned in Li’s speech this weekend. Grid spoke to Wallace about what the latest numbers and targets tell us, and whether the party, in the era of the current leader, Xi Jinping, has once again strayed from “seeking truth from facts.”

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Jeremy Wallace: I think a 6 percent growth target would have suggested putting the pedal to the metal and releasing the real estate monster that they’ve been trying to hold back. So, I’m heartened that the growth target has been set at a reasonable 5 percent rather than a higher level. Given the pent-up demand from the lockdown year of 2022, reaching this number will not require massive contortions or doubling down on ill-considered investments.

I think the important thing to remember is that, fundamentally, this was very successful. China’s growth story, the reason we’re talking about China’s National People’s Congress, is that China has become an incredibly successful economic development story. And GDP targeting is part of that story, and I think a major part of it.

Over time, though, and especially I would say in the mid 2000s and going forward, the kind of faults of that system, the kind of weaknesses — what it overlooked and what it wasn’t counting — became increasingly apparent. So problems like corruption, like pollution, debt that became overwhelming, were not counted, and they needed to come into focus. Also if what is happening in this system of GDP targets is essentially what political scientists refer to as “output legitimacy” — that a government is seen as justified in its rule because of its performance, its outputs — that performance is slowing, and so that’s not the business you necessarily want to be in.

So that kind of gross, completely disconnected from reality, distortion of statistics does happen and is happening in this case but is not the normal story. The normal story — what happens is when you get caught for data manipulation is that people lose trust. And I think perhaps with the covid story, the government decided that this was singular, this was a particular moment. If the lesson that is learned is you can’t trust the Chinese government when a pandemic wave is ripping through the population and killing a million people, they’re willing to take that loss. But that’s different than a basic economic reality, where if they report grossly false statistics about economic development, year after year, then businesses and others will take their money and go elsewhere. So I think that the way that statistical manipulation usually works in China is not the gross distortion, kind of hiding huge faults, but instead, relatively subtle: 8 percent growth becomes 9.5 percent growth. Those types of things that help you vis-à-vis your competitors as a local government official but not truly distorting from reality.

That remains the question going forward. I think that you’ll see a blend of all of those and at various moments, some will seem stronger than others. But I’m hopeful at least that there is some indication that the direction will be toward improving the lives of the Chinese people.

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