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Making it Count. Statistics and Statecraft in the Early People’s Republic of China

Making it Count. Statistics and Statecraft in the Early People’s Republic of China by Arunabh Ghosh (Princeton University Press, 2020)   ­
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­Statistics is rightly receiving new attention in these times of Big Data and Covid-19. This book by Arunabh Ghosh, an associate professor of history at Harvard University, shows how collecting and analyzing data can influence the development of a country. Ghosh uses a striking array of details and a broad study of sources to lead us through the world of statistics and statisticians in 1950s China.   

The historian kicks off his three sections (and nine chapters) by laying out the enthusiastic but often also faltering advent of modern China’s statisticians – people who wanted to put the new tools introduced by Soviet experts fully in the service of the newly founded People's Republic. But in Part 2, Ghosh impressively demonstrates how their lack of uniform data-collecting standards and an overabundant reporting system made statistics useless for the ruling classes – they became more and more removed from reality. In Part 3, he closely describes the attempts of Chinese statisticians to adopt new methods (especially random sampling) with the help of colleagues from India – and how Mao Zedong’s “Great Leap Forward” then put an abrupt end to this hitherto little-known initiative.  

Ghosh provides numerous tables, a 32-page bibliography, a helpful glossary. But in addition to a love of detail, the author is keen to grapple with some big questions. He wants to sensitize readers to the fact that ideological premises influence the validity of statistics much more than the ability to manipulate the technology used to collect them. The historian is asking the reader to reflect on what and how people want to know. This ambition means the book at times lacks a clear-eyed political evaluation of key players and their decisions. Nevertheless, "Making it Count" is a remarkably well-researched and well-written book that can be recommended to anyone who has wondered how the history of the People's Republic has shaped the (state’s) handling of statistical data to this day.   

Kristin Shi-Kupfer, Research Director Politics and Society 
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