“All that is solid melts into air, all that is holy is profaned, and man is at last compelled to face with sober senses, his real conditions of life..." - Karl Marx
The biggest problem one faces when dealing with anything put out by the Chinese government is that we simply cannot trust the facts as they are presented. This is a purposeful tactic that the government has frequently utilized since the inception of modern China in 1949 under Chairman Mao. Their goal is to obfuscate the truth to such a high degree that it becomes impossible to trust anything you read or see. Once the seed of doubt is planted, you are almost forced to default to a position of skepticism in which you are pretty sure what you're reading is false or exaggerated, but you cannot really prove it so you end up accepting it as maybe being partially true.
The Ministry of Love
The recent Wuhan coronavirus outbreak is a perfect example of how the Chinese government obfuscates the truth, spreads half-truths, and enforces loyalty to the state through fear and coercion. One need look no further than the case of Dr. Li Wenliang who began raising alarms about a SARS like virus spreading throughout Wuhan in December, weeks before the government acknowledged the scale of the problem.
What was the government's reaction to Dr. Li warning people to protect themselves? He was arrested, of course, along with seven others for "spreading rumours", which is a catch all crime the government uses to punish those who share information they don't want getting out. Dr. Li was eventually vindicated of his crime once an outpouring of anger started spilling out online, which happened despite the government attempting to ban trending phrases like "Wuhan government owes Dr. Li Wenliang an apology" on microblogging platform Weibo. Unfortunately, Dr. Li ended up losing his life to the virus he tried to warn others about, leaving behind a wife and young child.
Dr. Jiang Yanyong, who came to fame for exposing the SARS coverup, was conveniently under house arrest and is constantly under police surveillance so he can't give interviews. There have been more and more instances of 'citizen journalists' suddenly going missing after reporting on the outbreak from with Wuhan. Reports on their whereabouts are hard to come by but at least a few of them had arrests confirmed by friends and family.
A Toronto based research group found the most popular social media APP, WeChat, began censoring terms about the virus starting before the government had announced the sovereignty of the outbreak.
WeChat was found to have censored 132 keyword combinations between January 1 and 31. Among words identified were the terms "Unknown Wuhan pneumonia" and "SARS outbreak in Wuhan". As the outbreak continued, WeChat censored 384 new keywords between February 1 and 15. These include criticism of Chinese leaders – including Xi – as well as neutral references to government policies on handling the epidemic and responses to the outbreak in Hong Kong, Taiwan and Macau.
In addition to this, an unknown actor is pushing a massive disinformation campaign on Twitter and other social media sites spreading conspiracy theories stating things like the virus was invented by the Americans as a form of bio-warfare. A spokesman for China’s foreign ministry, Zhao Lijian, pushed this conspiracy on Twitter while State owned CCTV News has featured guests spreading the same theories. Not surprisingly, absent from all the coverage of COVID-19 on Chinese news is any meaningful criticism of the governments handling of the outbreak.
The Ministry of Plenty
One of the most blatant examples of this obfuscation came during the 'Great Leap Forward'. Chairman Mao tried to industrialize the Chinese economy in order to become a competitor with American and Russian production capabilities in the span of several years (1958-1962). Families were told to melt anything they could spare (including cooking utensils) in backyard furnaces to increase China's steel production. In order to fuel these backyard furnaces peasants clear cut any trees in sight and even resorted to burning their own doors and cabinets. This enavour produced steel that was frail and useless. The program was quietly cancelled after Mao came to learn that high-quality steel could only be produced in large-scale steel mills, though, of course, the program was allowed to carry-on for months in order to boost the spirit of the 'people'.
To feed the growing industrial workforce Mao needed to industralize agriculture. Irrigation systems were erected without the interference of trained engineers and the results were predictable. Government officials lied to Mao about how much rice/wheat they would be able to grow and local official lied about how much was actually being grown. Everyone was lying to each other because nobody dared question the leadership of Chairman Mao.
This system created a positive feedback loop where everyone knew they were lying to each other and kept doing so because they were being incentivized to do so. If the neighbouring province is saying they're producing X amount of wheat, then of course you'd be crazy not to say you're producing X+10% so that you can curry more favour with the central government.
The end result was that nobody knew how much grain was actually being produced, but because the central government was getting such high figures they began exporting grain for sale on a massive scale (resulting in widespread famine killing tens of millions). Had Chairman Mao, or any of the top officials, gone to the countryside they would have seen an area on the brink of disaster. Instead, they chose to remain willfully ignorant of the situation or just did not care. At a secret meeting in 1959 Mao was quoted as saying "When there is not enough to eat, people starve to death. It is better to let half of the people die so that the other half can eat their fill." The Great Leap Forward would last another 3 years and inflict unnecessary, and untold, hardship and human misery.
This trend continues to this day in any number of ways including such recent endeavours as the fight against pollution. Upwards of one million people lose their lives to a variety of environmentally related ailments in China every year, and the government has finally decided to do something about it. The first step was to set up monitoring stations all around the country to provide real time information about what the AQI (Air Quality Index) is. Once people started seeing just how bad the air was the government stepped back and barred broadcasters from reporting AQI numbers (unless the news was positive, of course) and ordered several popular apps to shut down or limit their readings. They also made a different AQI scale than the one used by almost every other country on Earth. As a result of this change, what we would normally call 'unhealthy' air pollution levels are reclassified as 'moderate' in China. Apparently the Chinese government believes their citizens are less affected by pollution than other human beings.
It used to be the case that air stations would report AQI up to 1000, which is the highest level, and many cities reported an AQI in the 800+ range, especially during the winter months where most cities still rely on small coal burning plants to heat homes. Instead of actually trying to combat this problem they've been caught on many occasions spraying mist cannons around censors stations in order to bring down the particulate matter levels. Five officials in the city Xi'an, home to the Terracotta Warriors, were caught stuffing AQI sensors with cotton balls to bring the readings down. Once again we see that when given an incentive lie, government officials inevitably will. If a neighbouring province has cut pollution by 10% then you need to cut it by 15% just to 'keep up' to those around you.
Another example of this obfuscation are Chinese economic numbers themselves. This manipulation can be seen in any number of ways including trying to calculate Consumer Price Indexes. Even the price of pork became a subject of manipulation:
"Underlying Chinese data in 2018 are a mess. According to the National Bureau of Statistics, the consumer price index for pork declined 9.6 percent in the year to date through July, but weekly wholesale market prices for pork are effectively flat. Meanwhile, a 22-province price index shows a decline of only 3.4%."
Often they do not even try to cover up their blatant falsehoods. Especially in the case where Chinese netizens noticed an officially reported industrial profit growth of 16% in 2018, but if you calculated the changes month by month you ended up with a industrial profit decline of 8.1%.
Studies have found China has inflated its GDP by an average of 2% per year from 2008 to 2016 and as a result all existing numbers are incorrect to varying degrees. The root of the problem is the same as what occurred during the Great Leap Forward, and the pathetic attempt at monitoring pollution levels - incentivized lying. The authors of the study quoted above found that "local statistics bureaus generally overstate industrial output as a portion of overall production as well as the size of investment within overall expenditures." The local level is lying to the province, the provinces are lying to the central government in Beijing, and everyone is aware that everyone is lying to each other.
Local governments are incentivized by grants to cook the books on investment and growth numbers and will continue to do so until the perverse incentive system is stopped. Provinces are incentivized to look good on a national level and the national government wants to look good on the world stage so as to attract investment and gain political prestige.
The Ministry of Peace
The Chinese government has continued this pattern of obfuscating the truth in nearly every endavour it has undertaken in the past 70 years. More recently, China has begun expanding its military capabilities in the South China Sea for a number of reasons. One is that they claim that area is part of China because of the 'Nine-Dash Line' policy under which they claim authority of all waters near Vietnam, Malaysia, and the Philippines as seen in the map below (green dashes indicate ownership):
They claim these waters despite being found by a UN tribunal to having no legal or historic claim to them (the first map had an 11-dash-line that was drawn in 1947) disregarding the fact that some areas are almost 1,000 miles away. Furthermore, the Chinese government has claimed it is not doing so for military purposes, yet was caught adding missile systems and other armaments to strategic islands in the Sea. In no sane world should China be allowed to claim waters that clearly don't belong to them because of a map the was drawn 70 years ago. But, once again, the incentives for lying about their motivations and actions are too strong to resist.
One could fine dozens more examples of this kind of behaviour (interment of Uygur Muslims, Tibet, imprisonment of political dissidents, arbitrary detainment of Canadian citizens after the HuaWei arrests, the social credit system, etc.), but I believe the above examples serve to illustrate the point sufficiently.
Everyone should be appalled at the behaviour of the Chinese government in almost everything it has every done since it's inception. The more people learn about the China the more people should realize the underline issues stem from having a centralized, unaccountable government with illiberal values.
An undemocratic (in every meaning of the word) government has every reason to lie, manipulate, and cheat their people while simultaneously lying and deceiving the rest of the world.
Don't fall for their lies.
Two plus two equals 4, no matter what they tell you.