BPEA | Spring 2019

A forensic examination of China’s national accounts

A man is seen in front of an electronic board showing stock information on the first day of trading in the Year of the Pig, following the Chinese Lunar New Year holiday, at a brokerage house in Hangzhou, Zhejiang province, China February 11, 2019. REUTERS/Stringer ATTENTION EDITORS - THIS IMAGE WAS PROVIDED BY A THIRD PARTY. CHINA OUT.
Editor's note:

This paper is part of the Spring 2019 edition of the Brookings Papers on Economic Activity, the leading conference series and journal in economics for timely, cutting-edge research about real-world policy issues. Research findings are presented in a clear and accessible style to maximize their impact on economic understanding and policymaking. The editors are Brookings Nonresident Senior Fellow and Northwestern University Professor of Economics Janice Eberly and Brookings Nonresident Senior Fellow and Harvard University Professor of Economics James Stock. Read summaries of all six papers from the journal here.


China’s national accounts are based on data collected by local governments. However, since local governments are rewarded for meeting growth and investment targets, they have an incentive to skew local statistics. China’s National Bureau of Statistics (NBS) adjusts the data provided by local governments to calculate GDP at the national level. The adjustments made by the NBS average 5% of GDP since the mid-2000s. On the production side, the discrepancy between local and aggregate GDP is entirely driven by the gap between local and national estimates of industrial output. On the expenditure side, the gap is in investment. Local statistics increasingly misrepresent the true numbers after 2008, but there was no corresponding change in the adjustment made by the NBS. We provide revised estimates of local and national GDP by re-estimating output of industrial, wholesale, and retail firms using data on value-added taxes. We also use several local economic indicators that are less likely to be manipulated by local governments to estimate local and aggregate GDP. The estimates also suggest that the adjustments by the NBS were insufficient after 2008. Relative to the official numbers, we estimate that GDP growth from 2008-2016 is 1.7 percentage points lower and the investment and savings rate in 2016 is 7 percentage points lower.


Chen, Wei, Xilu Chen, Chang-Tai Hseih and Zheng (Michael) Song. 2019. “A Forensic Examination of China’s National Accounts.” Brookings Papers on Economic Activity, Spring, 77-141.


Chang-Tai Hsieh is the Phyllis and Irwin Winkelried Professor of Economics at the University of Chicago; Wei Chen and Xilu Chen are students, and Zheng (Michael) Song is a Distinguished Visiting Professor at Tsinghua University and Professor at the Department of Economics of the Chinese University of Hong Kong, where Wei Chen and Xilu Chen are also PhD students. Beyond these affiliations, Dr. Song received financial support from the General Research Council of Hong Kong, and the remaining authors did not receive financial support from any firm or person for this paper or from any firm or person with a financial or political interest in this paper. They are currently not officers, directors, or board members of any organization with an interest in this paper. No outside party had the right to review this paper before circulation. The views expressed in this paper are those of the authors, and do not necessarily reflect those of the University of Chicago, Tsinghua University, or the Chinese University of Hong Kong.