China's economic data chief Wang under graft probe

27 January 2016

The man in charge of China's widely derided economic data is under investigation, apparently for corruption.

Wang BaoanJust a week ago, Wang Baoan, the head of China's statistics agency, had appeared in front of the media to insist the country's economic data was "genuine and reliable". On Tuesday, he turned out again to express confidence about the economy and markets.

But even as his comments were being re-broadcast on state radio, Wang's star was sinking faster than the stock market's value.

On Tuesday evening, the Central Commission for Discipline Inspection issued a terse, one-line announcement saying Wang had been placed under official investigation for ''suspected serious violations of discipline''.

The body in charge of China's anti-corruption crackdown did not say why Wang was being investigated, or whether its probe concerned his nine months as head of the statistics bureau, or the 17 years previously he spent within the finance ministry.

But Beijing News reported that a Communist Party central disciplinary inspection team had been working in the National Bureau of Statistics since the end of last October. In a meeting with the bureau's staff and the inspection team, Wang had vowed not to cover anything up and face any problems directly, saying that ''paper can never wrap up fire," the Beijing News reported on a social media account.

Wang also served from 2007 to 2009 in the ministry of finance economic construction office, overseeing a massive surge in infrastructure investment as part of an economic stimulus package in the wake of the global financial crisis. He later rose to become a vice-minister in the finance ministry.

The investigation into Wang won't make any real difference to the debate over China's economic data, between those who believe the numbers are roughly right and those who argue they wildly overstate the extent to which the economy is growing. But it can hardly help instil confidence.

Nor is it the first time an anti-corruption investigation has toppled a senior figure at an inopportune time.

Just last week, the deputy head of China's Taiwan Affairs Office was placed under investigation for ''serious violations of discipline,'' just days after an election in Taiwan that saw the pro-China ruling party trounced although there was no suggestion the two events were linked.

In November, in the aftermath of last year's stock market crash, Yao Gang, vice-chairman of the China Securities Regulatory Commission, the country's securities watchdog, was also placed under investigation.

The South China Morning Post said the announcement of Wang's removal had been read out on state radio just minutes after his remarks on the economy. ''The apparently hasty arrangement is rare given the tight editorial and censorship procedures at top state media,'' it wrote.

It is not the first scandal to hit the statistics bureau. In 2007, Former statistics chief Qiu Xiaohua was jailed for bigamy and expelled from the party for being a ''vile social and political influence." But after his release in 2008, Qiu was effectively rehabilitated, serving as an economics adviser for various state-owned enterprises and a part-time professor.

Last week, Wang announced that China's economy grew by 6.9 per cent in 2015, a figure that some analysts see as a significant overestimation.

Despite Wang's professed confidence in the markets and economy, Chinese shares are in an increasingly sorry state. On Tuesday, the Shanghai Composite Index fell 6.4 per cent to a new 13-month low on concerns that capital outflows will accelerate as the economy slows, Bloomberg reported.

By 1 pm on Wednesday, it had fallen another 2.8 per cent, and has lost nearly half its value since its peak in June 2015.

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