Citizen Analysts: China’s Data Revolution

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The popular focus of information transparency in China is on top-down restriction. However, there exists a more complex interplay between increasing access to state-generated data and public accountability that has received little attention. In fact, there is evidence that the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) views limited public oversight as critical to effectively implementing a wide range of policies, from anti-corruption campaigns to environmental protection. As the CCP has increasingly sought to maintain its legitimacy through good governance, the amount and relative availability of statistical data has expanded dramatically. This offers an avenue for technologically savvy civil society groups to check party-state excesses and affect change.

Data-Driven Government

Chinese state-generated data is inexorably linked with CCP authority. Since China’s opening under Deng Xiaoping, CCP legitimacy has rested on social stability and economic growth. Academics call this “output legitimacy.” State-generated data serves as a means for a technocratic regime to measure how well it is performing and demonstrate that performance to its citizenry, thus continually proving the system’s legitimacy.

Rather than wait for problems to emerge, the CCP has developed a sophisticated range of measures that allow it to adapt and head off threats to its legitimacy. Academics Bruce Gilley and Heike Holbig argue: “the CCP is an assiduous poller and a trenchant analyst of its own legitimacy.” Chief among these measurement tools are yearly performance evaluations (考核指标) that grade each level of government, firm, and government official.

The central government sets and adjusts grading tables, or “target responsibility evaluation and scoring standard tables” (目标责任评价考核指标以及计分标准表), which lay out yearly goals. Local governments are encouraged to create their own grading systems if there is no central standard. Success in meeting these targets, graded out of 100, determine bonuses, awards, promotions and potential punishments, shaping lower-level incentives and ensuring policy implementation. These performance snapshots require the collection of political, economic, environmental and other data and summarize yearly government performance.

A second way the CCP uses state-generated data is to publicly demonstrate performance. Evaluations of local and firm level policy performance are often released as one of four grades: “incomplete, basically complete, complete, or complete above target” (未完成、基本完成、完成、超额完成). As in the U.S., where the government generates thousands of economic indicators a year, there is room for the government to pick and choose what data is released. Unlike the U.S., where partisans selectively use data to bolster their case against the opposition, the CCP has a monopoly on using data to strengthen its reputation.

Since legitimacy rests on performance, the line between using data to measure performance versus to demonstrate achievement is blurred. Grading schemes are often opaque and goals and grading structures can be lax, making success a foregone conclusion. Locals face incentives to inflate performance or “engineer” data to both bolster legitimacy and increase the chances that they will be noticed as a high performer. Graders are often also responsible for the performance of those they are grading. Finally, graders do not always have expertise in the policy area they are grading and departments’ evaluative capacity can be lacking.

Despite these flaws, the initial announcement of specific policy goals and later release of grades represents a first, if incomplete, step towards greater government transparency. It also provides citizens a baseline by which to measure government performance and claims of policy success.


Holding Government Accountable

The unpredictable third role of state-generated data is public accountability. The CCP sees public accountability both as an implementation tool to verify and enhance local performance as well as an important pillar of its legitimacy. In 2012, Wen Jiabao published an article in Seeking Truth (求是), the theoretical journal of the CCP Central Committee, titled “Let Power Be Exercised in the Sunlight” (让权力在阳光下运行). Wen outlines four types of “oversight” (监督) the Party needs to fight corruption: internal party oversight, democratic oversight, legal oversight and public oversight.

Moreover, starting in 2011, central departments and local governments must disclose budgets for international travel, vehicle purchases, and entertainment under the “the three public expenses” (三公经费) initiative. This initiative seeks to “protect citizens’ rights to know the facts, rights to participate and rights to supervise” (保障人民群众的知情权、参与权和监督权). The media also pressures agencies to disclose the “three publics,” complaining when data is incomplete or inaccurate.

Open government information (OGI) requests, enshrined in the 2008 Regulation on Open Government Information 《政府信息公开条例》, have also been an increasingly effective tool for civil society groups to gain access to public data that has been held back. According to The Economist, “in 2011, roughly 3,000 requests had been filed to central-government departments and 1.3m others to offices at the provincial level. Over 70% led to the full or partial release of information, on everything from pollution to food safety to the tax on air fares.” Jamie Horsley of the China Law Center at Yale Law School says, “It is as if there has been a pent-up demand and now people are pushing for the information.”

Policies in the 11th and 12th Five-Year Plans also include provisions to “use all types of media” to announce both specific yearly policy goals and year-end outcomes (in the form of the grades discussed above). Bottom-up supervision complements and enhances top-down enforcement by recognizing and highlighting problems that local officials either cannot see or choose not to acknowledge and can thus improve overall government performance. Li Keqiang, in a recent article in Seeking Truth, reiterated the importance of publicizing government approvals processes (审批), arguing that transparency serves as a tool to push forward reform (助推器) and as “straitjacket” (紧箍咒) to restrict local government behavior.

The utility of public supervision is not limited to central-local relations; in interviews in Chongqing, municipal and local officials argue that announcing outcomes “gives face (面子) to high performers and shames low performers” into compliance. Several districts in Chongqing instruct the government to “accept media and societal public oversight” (接受新闻媒体和社会公众监督). Alex Wang, an expert on Chinese environmental law, argues that cadre evaluations and the public release of grades is an important first step towards deliberate, systematic public supervision: “public supervision and transparency can enable environmental regulators to do their jobs.”


Conflicting Goals: Good Governance or Tight Control?

Though public accountability can be a powerful policy tool, it can also undermine the CCP’s monopoly on using data to demonstrate performance. Prior to 2008, government budgets, among other data, were considered state secrets. Most data was available only to those with the proper connections. Now, savvy citizens and civil society groups can access reams of data online and monitor government performance.

To use an example from my own research in industrial energy regulation, since 2007, when the Chongqing government began announcing evaluations of district-level governments’ energy savings performance, no district has been scored “incomplete.” However, data released by the municipal government shows that, on at least 17 occasions over that time period, districts could have been given an incomplete grade. Officials argued that I calculated incorrectly, that I should not rely on yearly or regionally differentiated data, or that the data I used must be wrong. They point out that in the aggregate, Chongqing is successfully meeting its goals.

However, aggregation serves the interests of local governments by hiding fundamental, micro-level problems. More perniciously, aggregation may have the effect of giving officials a false sense of success. But by using only public data, it is possible to review government performance and begin to ask the right questions. This is the first step of data-driven public accountability and demonstrates both its usefulness in ensuring policy implementation and the inherent tension in undermining the government’s ability to control its success narrative.

So the question remains, how far is the CCP willing to go? Xi Jinping’s push to tamp down corruption has made public supervision increasingly important. When citizens spot officials wearing expensive watches or indulging in feasts, they can report so online. Zhou Shuzhen, a politics professor at Renmin University, argues: “the landmark downfall of Liu [Tienan, a vice minister in charge of the powerful National Development and Reform Commission] suggested the ruling party welcomes netizens to join the anti-corruption campaign in a rational, legal way and encourages them to report officials’ wrongdoing.” However, other instances of public supervision have been censored.


Impediments to Change

There are significant limits on the ability of citizens and civil society groups to collect and use data. The government reports most data in aggregate formats (provincial rather than local, by industry rather than by firm, etc.), making detailed analysis impossible. Disaggregate information is often stored in disparate locations, one year and one district at a time, using different units of measurement across periods. Government websites are slow, unintuitive, and often present data in tables that are not copy-paste capable; in addition, data points (firm names, districts) are named differently year to year, making it difficult to amass cross-sectional data.

More significantly still, the current political environment does not encourage citizen participation, even if specific policies do. China’s crackdown on online “rumors” will have a chilling effect on people’s willingness to report any irregularities they do find for fear of repercussions. Furthermore, though many provinces have anonymous online reporting systems, citizens have no guarantee that officials will not abuse the system to punish those asking for accountability. Many potential civil society participants may rightly view saying nothing as the safest option.



That this data is available at all represents a sea change. Increasingly, determined citizens and groups will be able to use available data to verify government performance. As my research assistants will attest, all it takes is determination and a bit of creativity. Moreover, in the case of central policy implementation, activist and CCP interests may overlap to create a mutually beneficial, if tense and contested, alliance.

1) Monitor Announcements, Track Metrics

Civil society groups need to dedicate staff to tracking what, if any, metrics are announced by local governments to assess policy completion in real time. In my research I found that lower levels of government often released both beginning-of-year goals and end-of-year assessments prior to higher levels of government. Goals and grades reported locally often were reported differently later on and at higher levels, while earlier records sometimes disappeared.

These discrepancies, both over time and between aggregate and disaggregate and lower-level and higher-level data, offer valuable insights into government performance and a place to start a dialogue with both civil society and regulatory officials. Activists can aggregate data online to publicize government performance and track changes over time. This would solve problems mentioned above, such as compiling disparate data, and provide as a valuable repository for interested citizens and civil society groups.

The above-mentioned OGI regulations also give civil society groups a legal means by which to obtain data that should be public but that the government has not yet disclosed. As my research shows, publically available, state-generated statistics do not just serve the government’s narrative; this data collection is time-intensive, but it is possible to learn a great deal from these statistics.

2) Independently Verify Data

Jack Ma, founder of Chinese e-commerce giant Alibaba, recently began a program to distribute cheap water quality testing equipment to volunteers, who can upload results to a digital map by smartphone. Jack Ma has also provided software to Ma Jun’s Institute of Public and Environmental Affairs (IPE) to help publicize pollution data. Ma’s IPE, a registered non-profit organization based in Beijing, developed the China Pollution Map Database to show the locations of pollution sources and highlight bad actors at the local level. Though not without controversy, the map has been cited as an important tool for activists and the governments alike. One Shandong Province environmental protection bureau official welcomed the expansion of the pollution map, saying it is an effective means to leverage public supervision of polluting enterprises. Speaking to Bloomberg, Judith Shapiro, author of “China’s Environment Challenges” argues: “the message that it gets out to the Chinese people is, ‘Yes, you can measure this stuff, you have the right to find out what’s in your water, what’s in your air,’ and that you have the right to ask your government to do something about it.” This approach gets citizens directly involved and provides a check on government data manipulation. Moreover, this citizen-collected, citizen-analyzed data, combined with careful analysis of official statistics, can support central government policy goals.

3) Form Partnerships

Civil society can play an important role in helping ensure government priorities are implemented locally. The Economist reports that China’s environment ministry recently invited civil society groups to a workshop in Beijing to address such potential partnerships: “According to one startled participant, officials encouraged the NGOs to be strong in order to ‘confront powerful authorities’—meaning local vested interests.” Working with independently aggregated state-generated data and citizen-collected data provides evidence of local transgressions to central authorities. While this method can only work in certain policy areas, such as environmental protection, it is an important potential avenue for cooperation.


A New Form of Legitimacy

Statistics are inherently political; no matter how useful public accountability is in implementing certain policy goals, the CCP will seek to control data in order to shape public perceptions. Even so, can the CCP reverse the process if it gets out of control, or will this new mode of governance inevitably lead to greater public supervision and increased transparency? Could this citizen-driven model even become a new source of CCP legitimacy and a path for civil society groups to develop partnerships with the CCP?

As economic growth slows and the negative externalities of pell-mell development take their toll, China’s current “output legitimacy” will become outdated and potentially destabilizing. Perhaps citizen use of China’s trove of state-generated data will provide a path for public supervision of the CCP and the enhanced legitimacy that comes through citizen participation. Though there is tension between the usefulness and dangers of data-driven public accountability, the current trends indicate an important role for technologically savvy civil society groups to work with, oversee, and thus legitimate an increasingly technocratic regime. And the regime is beginning to take note.




Gilley, Bruce. “Legitimacy and Institutional Change: The Case of China.” Comparative Political Studies 41:3 (2008). 259-284.
Gilley, Bruce and Heike Holbig. “In Search of Legitimacy in Post-Revolutionary China: Bringing Ideology and Governance Back.” GIGA (German Institute of Global and Area Studies) Working Paper No. 127. (March 8, 2010).
Horsley, Jamie. “Update on China’s Open Government Information Regulations: Surprising Public Demand Yielding Some Positive Results.” China Rights Form no. 2 (2010).
“Right to Know.” The Economist. 3 May 2014.
Wang, Alex. “The Search for Sustainable Legitimacy: Environmental Law and Bureaucracy in China.” Harvard Environmental Law Review 365 (2013).
Zhi, Chen. “Real-Name Whistleblowing Fuels China’s Online Anti-Corruption Efforts.” Xinhua. 14 May 2013.
Chen, Lulu Yilun. “Alibaba Recruits Users to Identify China’s Polluted Water.” Bloomberg. 14 Apr 2014.
“Beneath the Glacier.” The Economist. 12 Apr 2014.

In Brief

Tucker Van Aken discusses transparency in China and the way Open Government Information (OGI) regulations have brought new opportunities for civil society groups.
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