We try to keep our posts gratuitous, & the sequence random, but sometimes the one principle clashes with the other, & gratuitousness demands several consecutive posts, or nearly consecutive, on the same topic. The tag of the moment is “business magazines.” We mentioned that this is among the precious few topics for which we have any credentials at all.

Sporadically through the ‘seventies, & even into the early ‘eighties of the last century, we compounded our mistake of drifting into journalism by drifting into “business journalism.” Often it was a pretext for travel: to get into places & situations a plainly labelled political journalist could not. Or, to get assignments at all, given the competition of political journalists far better known & connected. (One hardship was our age, for we were then ridiculously young.)

For instance, there were months, while Cambodia was collapsing into the hands of the inconceivably murderous Khmer Rouge, when we were perhaps the only business journalist operating in the country, getting interviews with the most august personages, who would not speak to the New York Times. But for the purpose of promoting foreign investment, they would speak to this silly little kid (ourself).

Ditto, our whole experience of Vietnam was predicated on posing as a business journalist. For, once accredited by the nice officers in MAC-V (who liked us because we didn’t spit in their faces), we could ride in their helicopters with the big boys. We had the advantage over them, too, of being not taken seriously. They had big-boy by-lines, & were pursuing Fame. We were filing, mostly as anonymous correspondent, to obscure & contemptibly specialized business publications. Such Fame was unnecessary to us, even something to be avoided, for we had no aspirations to grand advancement in the trade. (At the time we imagined ourself to be a poet.) What we wanted was to see things with our own eyes; while earning enough money to get by.

At the time, we had a huge crush on the Economist, then unquestionably “the bible” for business journalists, & a much better informed & better written publication than it is today. We remember our acute disappointment when we offered our services to them, & were rejected on sight, with a note that employed the future tense, & did not bother to assuage our ego.

What we admired about the paper was this very directness. It was possible because all their correspondents were anonymous, & their reputation was for getting facts straight. They were indifferent to “personalities,” to the “gonzo” rewarded by the big American media. And therefore they employed some extremely eccentric, but very well-informed people. They were much smaller then, they paid poorly, but their paper was read by a genuinely intelligent, international elite of people who needed to know what was really happening. (Mass media editors know their readers don’t really need to know anything they could offer; only to be entertained at a fairly coarse level.) Too, the Economist house style demanded wit, candour, brevity & precision.

Of course, those were also the days before what is mildly called “political correctness” made every journalist his own gestapo against candour of any kind.

And, one important aspect of this process of moral & intellectual idiotization was the replacement of all the lies & damned lies, with statistics. The process had been pioneered by Lenin & Stalin in their Five Year Plans. While Western journalists need not answer directly to the People’s Commissariat, the mindset in which direct observation of reality is replaced by manipulation of dubious statistics gradually spread through NATO, fritzing 83.27 percent of every brain. Like everyone else, the editors at the Economist gradually succumbed to this disease. From being very sharp on statistics — which requires being very sceptical of them, & refusing ever to depend on statistics alone — they wandered into the poisoned fog of numerology.

Let us give a minor & inconsequential example, as befits an Idler, to explain what we mean. We noticed & happened to bookmark this Daily Chart, found on the index page of the Economist website some months ago. Big so-called fact: “More than half of China’s people now live in urban areas.” What does this mean?

The assertion itself is meaningless rubbish. Various incidental remarks made in the text accompanying the chart are likewise nonsense, including the cute reference to Marco Polo. But let’s just stick to what is presented “seriously.”

Chungking (old-fashioned spelling), within Szechuan province (ditto), is often currently given as the largest city in China, with a population exceeding 30 million. We have seen it mentioned as “the largest city in the world” more than once, in credulous Western media. But this can be said only by a person ignorant of the official Chinese way of defining an “urban area,” for administrative & statistical purposes. For the “shi” (administrative division) of Chungking is listed as 82,400 square kilometres. That is about the size of Austria. So, yes: the City of Chungking is more densely inhabited than Austria.

Another hint: this “city” contains at least 15 “counties.” Another: two-thirds of the people employed in this “city” are working in “agriculture,” according to other official Chinese statistics.

This is to take Chinese statistics at face value. But they cannot be relied on in any way. The entire statistical system of China is corrupted, not only for propaganda purposes, but because it is used as the basis for budget allocations & bureaucratic promotions. That is to say, even if the central authority is not lying, everyone who supplies them with information is lying. Further complicating the issue, the Chinese central statistical department has been taken to pieces & reassembled at intervals of a decade or less, continuously since the Maoist Revolution; & each time its entire methodology has been “reformed.” Therefore no historical comparisons are possible; therefore no current statistic or estimate has any reliable context. Therefore the pretence of statistical precision throughout this chart is a farce.

One might take it from there. If one goes so far as to wipe from one’s consciousness every statement about China based on Chinese statistics, one will not go too far. But while forty years ago, the Economist‘s writers & editors generally got this, they do not get it today. And this problem extends from the population of Chungking, to the outermost journalistic horizon.