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Statistics and lies
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The latest regulations on penalties for fabricating statistics can be deemed as another threatening roll of thunder. Whether it will be followed by a downpour to wash away the unbecoming practice remains to be seen.

Jointly released by the Ministry of Supervision, the Ministry of Human Resources and Social Security and National Bureau of Statistics (NPS), the regulations stipulate that those who deliberately cook up figures in statistical reports will be fired, and possibly be sued if their offence is serious enough to constitute a crime.

Following the widespread public skepticism about the inflated average salary of urban workers released by NPS early this month, this move may be considered as an effort to make up for the reputation of NPS. But we would rather believe that they are meant to crack down on rampant cheating in statistics by some local governments.

Public skepticism reflected in common observations such as "achievements not brilliant enough can be inflated by figures" and "officials can always cook up figures for getting a promotion" speaks volumes about the credibility of statistical reports published by some government departments.

In 2007 alone, nearly 20,000 violations concerning statistical data collection were uncovered nationwide, and more than 50 percent of them were found to have reported inflated figures or covered up negative figures.

It is high time that such irregularities were cracked down upon without leniency. But we still see some very vague descriptions of the degree of violations and the different penalties they would attract. For the making up of false figures, the penalty for violators whose cases are "extremely serious" can be the loss of their jobs or jail terms. But another person who did the same thing whose case is deemed not "serious" enough will get away with a warning.

The description of what amounts to "extremely serious", "serious" and "not serious" needs to be made more specific and not left to vague or whimsical interpretation. Another question is: Who will decide whether a particular violation is serious or not.

Opacity in the description of violations and penalties can be a refuge for offenders, especially for those who enjoy the backing powerful leaders.

There is no reason to believe that those who drafted these regulations have intentionally left for offenders room for maneuver. But the vague descriptions do provide chance in reality for some offenders to get away with lesser penalty.

Hopefully, interpretations about the implementation of the regulations will be released soon to make it possible for offenders to be deservingly punished.

The regulations are noteworthy moves in the ongoing reforms for assessing the performance of the authorities. In the new assessment model, economic growth figures will not be the sole benchmark of good governance. Instead, factors such as the capability for innovation, quality of living created for local residents and environmental protection will be taken into consideration when it comes to assessing the performance of a government.

Some will still cheat when it comes to figures or even facts for their personal advancement. Therefore, it is all the more important to be specific in the matter of punishing the offenders.

(China Daily April 30, 2009)

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