China's crackdown on data access adds to list of missing statistics

The tighter control over information comes after China issued its most sweeping blueprint yet on data ownership in Dec, in a clear sign that data will play a key role in powering Xi's vision for China


Photo: Bloomberg

China’s crackdown on data access to overseas firms is adding to concerns about how Beijing controls the flow of information in the country, making it difficult for investors to assess the state of the economy. 

In recent weeks, domestic data company Wind Information Co. has stopped providing some information to overseas clients, US consultancy Bain & Co. was targeted by investigators and business intelligence firm Capvision raided as part of a new anti-spy campaign.

The lack of access to information goes much deeper than that, though. For at least a year or more, data providers — some official and others private — have been restricting information like academic papers and court judgments, official biographies of politicians, and bond market transactions. 

“At the end of the day it’s becoming harder to analyze what’s going on in China,” Hao Hong, chief economist at Grow Investment Group, said in an interview on Bloomberg Television on Monday. As Chinese data gradually becomes less available, “people learn to get around the issue” by using different data sources, he said.

China’s National Bureau of Statistics and State Council Information Office didn’t immediately respond to faxed inquiries seeking more information. 

The tighter control over information comes after China issued its most sweeping blueprint yet on data ownership in December, in a clear sign that data will play a key role in powering President Xi Jinping’s vision for the world’s second largest economy.

Here’s a look at some of the datasets than have been restricted recently.

Corporate Data
Wind in recent months stopped giving offshore clients access to its corporate registry database, according to multiple people familiar with the matter, citing regulatory requirements. Registry databases at Qichacha and TianYanCha — companies that provide similar services — have also been inaccessible for some time to users outside mainland China.

There’s been no official confirmation or explanation for the data restrictions, although the Wall Street Journal reported that Beijing wanted to curtail the information in part because of a series of reports written by US research institutions that alarmed officials. 

Bond Transactions
China’s bond market plunged into chaos in March after fixed-income brokers stopped supplying aggregated bond quotes to data vendors long relied on by traders. Transactions plunged by 30% to 60% from one day to the next after the two-day halt, which some media said was due to regulators trying to address data security concerns. No official explanation was given for the suspension. 

The bond feeds were restored after widespread complaints from financial market participants — but not without undermining the trust in the onshore bond market, which the government had been trying to promote to foreign investors. 

Covid Cases
China has faced criticism globally for its lack of data transparency throughout the pandemic — both early on during the initial spread of the virus in late 2019, and late last year when domestic virus controls were dropped and infections spread like wildfire. Several countries restricted travelers from China at the end of 2022 because of the uncertainty of the outbreak and the unreliability of China’s data.

The World Health Organization said in February it wanted more cooperation from China in supplying data as the international body continued to investigate the origins of Covid-19. 

Academic Information 

As of April 1, overseas access to parts of the popular academic database China National Knowledge Infrastructure have been suspended. That means overseas academics can no longer access Chinese dissertations, patents, statistics and conference proceedings, the University of California, Berkeley said in an online notice. 

Others reported that access to statistical yearbooks and Chinese census data would also be affected. The change in access was to comply with a 2022 law on cross-border data transfer, according to a statement from the Chinese data provider.

Politicians’ Biographies
Since late 2022, the official biographies of senior Chinese officials published online by state media have shrunk dramatically. 

Instead of releasing details of full work experience spanning decades, state media now only publishes one-line resumes — covering where an official was born, when they started working, their educational background and current position in the party and the state.

The biographies used to be detailed enough to see where an official’s past may have overlapped with leaders like President Xi and new Premier Li Qiang, providing clues into the influence they could potentially wield in their roles. 

Court Judgments
In 2021, about 11 million court rulings were removed from China Judgements Online, a database of rulings run by the Supreme People’s Court, the South China Morning Post reported in June of that year. According to an analysis published in the Asia Society’s online magazine ChinaFile, the purge was at least partly aimed at cases viewed as sensitive to the Communist Party, such as those related to corruption or abuse of power.

‘Negative’ Data
Some data providers have stopped reporting specific data sets with information the government may deem to be too negative.

In May of last year, the main bond trading platform for foreign investors quietly stopped providing data on their transactions after record outflows in the nation’s $20 trillion debt market. No daily transactions by overseas investors have been published on China Foreign Exchange Trade System since then.

G7 Connect, a company providing trucking data, halted the public release of data last May, without giving any reason. The data had been used to track economic activity — which at the time was under severe strain given Covid-related lockdowns in Shanghai, Jilin and elsewhere. 

The National Bureau of Statistics has also failed to release data in February and March showing the amount of land developers have bought and the price paid for it. Those figures are used to help track a turnaround in the property market, which remains uncertain. In 2022, developers bought 53% less land than in 2021, and paid almost 50% less as well. 

First Published: May 09 2023 | 09:31 AM IST

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