official statistics and China’s GDP growth

China’s official GDP estimates are distrusted by many, who think that the government is overstating the country’s true rate of economic growth. Columbia University’s Xavier Sala-i-Martin teamed up with two economists from the New York Fed (Hunter Clark and Maxim Pinkovskiy) to examine satellite data on variation over time of nighttime light emissions – a proxy for GDP growth. They find that the official statistics on average do not overstate China’s growth rate; in fact, in recent years they understate it.

For analysts of the Chinese economy, questions about the accuracy of the country’s official GDP data are a frequent source of angst, leading many to seek guidance from alternative indicators. These nonofficial gauges often suggest Beijing’s growth figures are exaggerated, but that conclusion is not supported by our analysis, which draws upon satellite measurements of the intensity of China’s nighttime light emissions—a good proxy for GDP growth that is presumably not subject to whatever measurement errors may affect the country’s official economic statistics. ….

The chart below presents the path of official Chinese GDP growth alongside our modified Li Keqiang Index (with the weights determined by the nighttime lights regression). We place a 95 percent confidence interval around our prediction.

Is Chinese Growth Overstated?

Hunter Clark, Maxim Pinkovskiy, and Xavier Sala-i-Martin, “Is Chinese Growth Overstated?“, Liberty Street Economics, 19 April 2017.

The authors’ full working paper on which this article is based, “China’s GDP Growth May be Understated” (NBER No. 23323, issued in April 2017), can be downloaded here.

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