Sunday, January 25, 2009

China's 2008 GDP numbers: good or bad?

At a press conference yesterday, China's National Bureau of Statistics announced GDP figures for 2008.

Most of today's newspapers reported the key numbers, which included an annual growth rate of 9%, a fourth-quarter growth rate of 6.8%, and an annual CPI growth rate of 5.9%.

The majority of papers led with some variation on the neutral headline "Last year's GDP grew 9%". Some chose to highlight absolute figures, as in the Beijing Morning Post's declaration, "Last year's GDP broke 30 trillion," while others took more of a local focus, as in the Chinese Business View's reporting of the numbers for Shaanxi Province: "15.6%: Seven years of continuous high growth for the provincial GDP."

On the negative side of things, the Southern Metropolis Daily and The Beijing News noted that 9% was a seven-year low for GDP growth.

Both newspapers are ventures of the Southern Media Group, which occupies the liberal end of the spectrum of Chinese media. Last April, commentary it published in the wake of the Lhasa riots sparked a massive flame war that pitted "angry youth" who frequent nationalist-leaning forums against China's liberal press. Wen Feng (aka. Mei Ninghua, president of the Beijing Daily Group), wrote an op-ed for the Beijing Evening News at the height of the controversy that delivered a concise summary of Southern Media Group's reputation, chock-full of ironic scare-quotes:

...the Southern Media Group, with [Southern Weekly] at the lead, has always set itself up as China's most "western" newspaper, the "boldest," "keenest," and most "penetrating" newspaper, one that tirelessly promotes western "universal values" and "free press."

The Beijing News, which is operated through a partnership with the Guangming Daily (headline: "2008 Gross Domestic Product Increases 9%"), ran with this headline at the top of the page:

9%: Last year's GDP growth was lowest in 7 years

Influenced by the financial crisis, China's fourth quarter GDP growth was 6.8%, CPI for the year increased 5.9%

A similar headline was used in the group's flagship newspaper, the Southern Metropolis Daily:

Last year's 9% GDP growth was a 7-year low

Overall, the national economy maintains stable, relatively fast growth; the CPI rose 5.9% year-on-year, a 12 year high
Global Times
January 23, 2009

On the other side of the aisle is the Global Times, a sibling of the People's Daily that often gets called "nationalistic" or even "jingoistic." Here's the headline and first paragraph of that paper's defiant front page report:

China's Record in '08 Deserves Respect

Economies of developed countries are mired in negative figures; Western media continues to sneer at China

China's most recently-released GDP growth figures for 2008 have found completely different reactions at home and abroad. Many domestic academics breathed a sigh of relief at the "better than expected" numbers released on the 22nd, and some people even believe that China's economy has already begun to rebound after bottoming out. The rise in the Shanghai, Shenzhen, and Hong Kong stock markets precisely expresses investor optimism toward the numbers. But at the same time, there was widespread anxiety in the western media over China's farewell to double-digit growth, particularly the slip to 6.8% in the fourth quarter, and worries that the country would not be able to maintain its 8% target. Predictions that this would bring turbulence to China were heard all over. Taking a look around, from Korea and Japan to Europe, growth in the fourth quarter last year was practically all negative. A gulf of 12% or more separates them from China's 6.8% growth rate. China is still holding tightly to its position as a growth leader. Those who sing of China's decline may well be frightened by the present situation. Or perhaps they really are willing to see the whole world badly off if it means that China will collapse. But chaos has not come to those negative-growth countries, so why should chaos come to China? Such criticism once again belittles the resilience of Chinese society.

The article goes on to cite doom and gloom predictions from The Wall Street Journal, Le Monde, The Times of London, and The Los Angeles Times.

By framing the debate over the meaning of China's GDP numbers as yet another us-versus-them argument in which domestic cheerleaders face off against global forces eager to see China fail, the Global Times misrepresents the Chinese media as speaking with one voice and ignores the real differences of opinion that do exist.