Planet China

Padding the data

During the Great Leap Forward 60-odd years ago, targets for crop production were set to levels that were nigh impossible to achieve. As a result, a culture of data manipulation developed as officials tried to avoid the repercussions of underperformance and instead lied about their district’s agricultural output.

In Xi’an, a group of officials were recently discovered to have kept that tradition alive, although this time the altered data was for air pollution, rather than wheat or rice production.

The three officials were arrested this month following the revelation that they snuck into one of the city’s two air monitoring stations and stuffed the probe’s inlet pipe with cotton, providing an effective filter for the air.

Last February the head of the monitoring station seized an opportunity – when the post was changing location – to make copies of the keys for the new site and memorise the access codes. He and others then returned in secret to sabotage the machine’s accuracy.

Because the station feeds data directly to the national air pollution monitoring centre, it is under state control. This means no one, not even the head of the station, is allowed to access the equipment without permission.

Unfortunately, this link to the national monitor meant that such miraculous improvements in air quality did not go unnoticed, and the headquarteres eventually dispatched an inspector to Xi’an to find out how it had been achieved.

An insider told a local paper that the officials had committed the fraud to avoid penalties for failing to meet pollution targets. Clearly the consequences they face now will be considerably worse.

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