China Aims Away from GDP, Medal & Arrest Targets

While many regions in China have lowered GDP targets amid the “new normal” of slower growth, Shanghai announced this week that it has dropped its target entirely. From Marketplace:

“It was really surreal to hear the mayor of China’s wealthiest city start a speech off by saying, ‘We’re not too concerned about ,’” [China correspondent Rob] Schmitz says. “For the past couple of decades growth has been the be-all, end-all obsession for China’s government.”

According to Schmitz, there’s much more to the health of the Chinese economy than just GDP numbers. Chinese officials were so eager to boost GDP that they didn’t care how the numbers were achieved. “Up until now, a lot of government spending has been inefficient and wasteful, only benefiting the rich and the powerful,” Schmitz says. [Source]

Elsewhere, too, authorities have been reassessing traditional targets and yardsticks. Reuters’ Sui-Lee Wee reported calls to de-emphasize medal counts to avoid sporting fraud and match-fixing:

China’s General Administration of Sport said the desire for gold medals has led to “a small number of athletes and coaches who will stop at nothing to achieve good results in competitions”.

“The unscrupulous, illegal and fraudulent pursuit of gold medals not only distorts the spirit of sport, but also hurts career development and national interests, the agency said in a statement issued on Monday.

“It undermines the image of sport and is contrary to its value. We must resolutely oppose this and effectively eliminate it,” it said.

[…] China will scrap awards to provinces whose athletes win Olympic and Asian Games gold medals, as well as the ranking of provinces and cities by golds won at National Games that are held every four years, the agency said. [Source]

Last week, the Central Political and Legal Committee ordered the abolition of targets for arrests, indictments and convictions, which one former judge described as “very stupid,” “highly unscientific and unreasonable.” From Chris Buckley at The New York Times:

“Usually, certain targets or certain instructions are issued at the top level,” Joshua Rosenzweig, a researcher in Hong Kong who studies China’s criminal , said by telephone. “And as they work their way down the hierarchy, they sometimes get more and more concrete, because everyone is expected to satisfy the desires of their superiors.”

[…] The targets were just one measured by the Chinese legal system to ensure that official statistics show a nearly unblemished record, said , a criminal lawyer in Beijing. One consequence is that the police are often reluctant to record less serious crimes unless they are sure of arresting someone, said Mr. Shang, who welcomed the proposed changes.

“The very existence of these targets is irrational,” he said by telephone. “If there’s a murder, and if you absolutely have to solve the case or the public security bureau chief or detective will lose his post or be demoted, then actually that’s the root of many cases of confession under torture that have emerged.”

[…] Lawyers and experts said that abolishing the official targets could make it easier for the Chinese police, prosecutors and courts to withstand demands to deliver swift convictions, but they would remain under pressure from official expectations. [Source]

On Twitter, Fordham Law School’s Carl Minzner described the abolition of targets as “Impressive…if they can pull it off.” “Of course,” he added, “2004 Green GDP program aimed to change enviro targets. A decade later, still in progress.”

Earlier this month, The Economist blamed official target-setting for encouraging a range of problems including pollution, wasteful spending, illegal or otherwise wrongful detentions, and forced abortions. But a shift away from this approach, it argued, will not address the problems it has brought to the fore:

Autocratic regimes can oppress their citizens without performance targets, and performance targets are not necessarily a bad idea. Many well-run companies and governments put them to good use. But the combination of autocracy and targets is a dangerous one because officials are likely to place hitting their numbers above other considerations, such as adherence to the law and human decency.

[…] Tweaking the rules will not solve the problem, which goes to the heart of the Chinese system. The government does not have a methodology for getting officials to run their patches in a way which is effective, legal and commands the consent of the people. Targets can increase government’s effectiveness, but they do so at the cost of legality and popularity.

The only way of combining the three is to make officials accountable to the people, through elections. This would not be as radical a move as it sounds. The constitution, whose importance Mr Xi has extolled, entitles people to vote freely for local legislators, who have the theoretical power to dismiss officials. In practice only Communist Party stooges are allowed to stand. But if Mr Xi really wants officials to stop abusing citizens, he should introduce a system that makes them genuinely accountable. That would be a better way of discouraging protests than issuing targets to suppress them. [Source]