Big Lies and Censorship

Aug 17, 2023

This week, there were two telling markers on the road to US-China disinformation—a fourth criminal indictment for America’s 45th president and China’s purging of a sensitive economic statistic. While seemingly unrelated, both developments have one important thing in common: a former US leader and his “base” who continue to traffic in the Big Lie of a stolen election and a Chinese statistical system that is being corrupted by the Big Lie of state-directed censorship.

False equivalency? Maybe not.

By now, the American public has become numb to the polarizing presence of Donald Trump. You are either with him, or against him—there is no in-between. While the majority of Americans are against him—56% in the so-called FiveThirtyEight polling average of August 14—the support of his unflappable base holds an overwhelming majority in the Republican party—53% according to the latest FiveThirtyEight average. Indictments or not, Trump’s base support remains firm—even in the aftermath of Jack Smith’s four-count August 1 Federal indictment that lays bare the fiction of the Big Lie. While Fani Willis’s Georgia state indictments of August 14 put Trump’s Big Lies in a broader racketeering context, there is little reason to believe that his base will feel any differently.

Chinese censorship presents a very different type of Big Lie. It is coordinated by the Party’s Propaganda (or Publicity) Department that, as I wrote in Accidental Conflict, “oversees a sprawling network of information control that permeates all aspects of expression in Chinese society.”  While Internet-based censorship gets most of the attention, the heavy hand of the Propaganda Department is also evident in print newspapers and magazines, television, film, literature, music, and education.  In recent years, censorship has been increasingly aligned with Xi Jinping’s urging to “tell a good China story.”

This week, the Party’s efforts to curate a good China story took on even broader meaning. The National Bureau of Statistics (NBS) suspended release of the widely watched series on youth unemployment (covering those in the 16–24-year age bracket), which had climbed to a record 21.3% in June. The NBS spokesperson claimed the series was in “need to be further improved and optimized.” Oh really?

The problem, of course, is that China’s worrisome growth shortfall has taken an especially acute toll on its younger workers.  With the private sector—specially technology companies—continuing to struggle, the Chinese job machine is under considerable pressure. Unfortunately, rather than own up to a serious problem, NBS statisticians have been ordered to erase the evidence that documents this worrisome aspect of labor market distress. Nor is this an isolated development. Monthly NBS data on consumer confidence were suspended five months ago, just as worries were mounting over the lagging Chinese consumer. That followed a late 2022 elimination of quarterly data on cremation services that was helpful in assessing Covid-related mortality rates.

I have been following China very closely for about 25 years. While I am hardly naïve about the power of Chinese censorship, I have long held the view that China’s economic statistics were walled off from state interference and were far more accurate than most believed. These latest developments provide more than just a pause for thought on that count. I am beginning to believe that China’s censorship regime distorts the truth just as badly as a US Republican Party that remains under the spell of the Big Lie. Neither one of us should gloat.

You can follow me on Twitter @SRoach_econ

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