Debate emerges over official Gini figures

Debate emerges over official Gini figures

Scholars and Net users are debating the accuracy of recent Gini coefficient figures released by the statistics authorities that show incomes far more evenly distributed than academic research does.   

The National Bureau of Statistics stopped publishing index findings in 2001, citing difficulty collecting data from wealthy households. However, in January it released information for the years 2003 to 2012. Analysts speculate the move might help prepare for income redistribution reforms.   

The official index shows that the country’s wealth gap peaked in 2008 at 0.491, then fell over the years to 0.474 in 2012.   

The Gini coefficient measures income inequality on a scale of 0 to 1, where 0 is perfect equality and 1 total inequality. Experts say a reading above 0.4 usually marks strong inequality.   

The government’s findings are at odds with a report released in December by researchers at the Southwestern University of Finance and Economics in Chengdu. It said the index for 2010 was 0.61, much higher than the government’s 0.481.  

The discrepancy caused an uproar on the Internet, and critics say the official numbers do not match what ordinary people are experiencing.

Xu Xiaonian, an economist at the China Europe International Business School in Shanghai, rejected the government’s figures as outright fakes, saying on his microblog that even a writer of fairytales would not find them convincing. His post has received great attention online.   

However, the chief of the statistics bureau, Ma Jiantang, said the government’s Gini index figures were in line with World Bank’s estimates. He said the official index was 0.491 in 2008, roughly on the same level as the bank’s 0.474.   

That corroboration could mean nothing since the World Bank based its research on sampling statistics from a Chinese work team sponsored by the bureau, China Securities Journal reported in 2010.   

The newspaper cited Li Shi, then a member on the team and the head of Beijing Normal University’s China Institute for Income Distribution.   The government’s Gini figures were by and large believable, he said, despite inevitable errors and lingering doubts over whether high-income families’ income has been underestimated.  

Li questioned the sampling techniques used by the researchers at Southwestern University of Finance and Economics and said an inflated index plays into people’s anger over inequality, but was detrimental to policy-making.