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Saturday, Aug. 19, 2006

Struggling for transparency in China


HONG KONG -- Following the Chinese press, one sometimes gets totally depressed and feels that there is no hope for the country, with its myriad problems. At other times, the opposite is true. This week, it is a mix. On different fronts, one sees a host of problems but, at the same time, it is clear that there are people who are trying to come to grips with them although there seems to be a lack of political will to solve the problems on the part of the powers that be.

Take statistics. Each year, China announces before yearend what its growth is for that year. This does not enhance confidence in Chinese figures. After all, it takes time for the different provinces to assemble their figures and send them to Beijing, where they are aggregated.

What is even stranger is that the figure announced is never the sum of those sent in by the provinces. The figure is always less, betraying a belief in Beijing that provincial figures cannot be trusted. So what one has, at the end, is an estimate based on Beijing's best guess of the extent to which various provinces have inflated their figures.

For the first half of 2006, all China's provinces reported double-digit growth, with an overall growth rate of 12 percent. However, the National Bureau of Statistics put the country's growth at 10.9 percent -- 1.1 percent less -- discounting $10.06 billion in growth.

Beijing officials know local governments routinely inflate figures to look good in the central government's eyes. Officials then estimate how much exaggeration there was and attempt to come up with a figure that is roughly right.

Local statisticians know which side their bread is buttered on. Local governments pay them and decide if and when they should be promoted. Changing this situation should result in more reliable figures.

Another possible solution is to publish provincial figures and insist that local officials account for them. The problem is solvable but it takes political will.

Another problem stems from China's birth-control policies. Many observers have pointed to abuses, including female infanticide, late-term abortions and the worsening imbalance of males to females that result from the state's one-child policy.

The official Xinhua news agency last week reported that millions of men may not be able to find wives. The State Commission for Population and Family Planning predicts that by 2020, there will be 25 million men who will be unable to find wives if the current gender imbalance continues.

While globally the ratio is 103 to 107 boys born for every 100 girls, in China it is 119 boys for every 100 girls.

Again, the problem can be resolved with the necessary political will. Beijing must stop using the birth rate to assess the performance of local officials. This system encourages local abuses, such as false imprisonment and unlawful forced abortions.

One way out would be to replace the one-child policy with a one-son policy. That way, couples will not have to kill female babies since they will know they have another chance to have a boy. This will also result in an improved gender balance.

Another problem is the need to be more open on health issues. The 2003 SARS crisis gave China a bad name, since it was shown to be suppressing information. The result, of course, was that people overseas had to pay the price for China's deceit with their lives as the virus spread.

The issue resurfaced this month when use of a problematic antibiotic led to at least six deaths before the drug was banned. According to the Beijing News, the first notice of an adverse reaction to the drug was posted on the State Food and Drug Administration (SFDA) Web site July 27, but the drug was not banned until a week later.

"We reported as soon as it was suitable to inform the media and society," a spokesman of the SFDA was quoted as saying. "It was very timely."

However, the Chinese media have blamed an obsession with profits and lax supervision for the deaths of dozens of people as a result of fake or poor-quality products. The problematic antibiotic is but the latest in a series of incidents.

It is encouraging that all these problems are being discussed in China. However, it is high time that talk is replaced by action. Unfortunately, some measures under consideration, such as muzzling of the press, are likely to exacerbate the problems rather than contribute to their resolution.

Frank Ching is a Hong Kong-based journalist and commentator.


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