“Our people crave, more than anything else, to know the extent of the nation,” says the narrator in “Do You Love Me?”, a short story by Peter Carey set on an imaginary world that lionises cartographers. To satisfy that craving, the country carries out a regular, exhaustive census: a “total inventory of the contents of the nation”. Helpful householders even move their possessions—furniture, appliances, utensils, heirlooms—into the street for easier counting.

China, like many countries, is keen to know its own extent. This year it is preparing its latest economic census, a twice-a-decade undertaking. Like the census in Mr Carey’s fable, it is a “mammoth task”. The most recent one employed 3m people, counted more than 8m enterprises and estimated a GDP of almost 59trn yuan ($9.5trn at the time). This year’s census may find that GDP per person has exceeded $10,000, enough to form a tidy pile of possessions on the street.

But why, many people will ask,…Continue reading

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