Book review: Arunabh Ghosh, Making It Count: Statistics and Statecraft in the Early People’s Republic of China

Published date01 April 2021
Date01 April 2021
Subject MatterBook Reviews
130 Journal of Asian Security and International Affairs 8(1)
Arunabh Ghosh, Making It Count: Statistics and Statecraft in the Early
People’s Republic of China. Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University
Press, 2020, 340 pp., ISBN: 978-0-691-17947-6.
DOI: 10.1177/2347797021992167
Countries strategically use statistics to secure foreign aid and investment, burnish
their international image and wage information wars against adversaries. The
dogfight over the COVID-19 statistics that has rocked the fragile US–China
relations is the latest reminder of the importance of statistics in international
relations. The literature has, however, paid insufficient attention to the role of
statistics in international affairs.
Making It Count examines scientific and state-building activities of the early
Maoist China and highlights ‘the interplay between technical considerations and
broader shifts in domestic and international politics’ (p. 7) that generated path-
dependent institutional choices in the field of statistics. Drawing on archives in
China, India and the United States and interviews in China, Ghosh also illuminates
an interface between statistics and international relations by examining statistical
exchanges among India, China and the USSR. Other questions raised in the book,
which we will skip due to space constraints, relate to science in non-liberal, non-
Western contexts and the assumption of universal acceptance of probabilistic
The book consists of 10 chapters divided into three parts. The first part
discusses the use of numbers in pre-War China and explores the philosophical
underpinnings and technical apparatus of Soviet-inspired socialist statistics in
Maoist China. The second and third parts, respectively, examine socialist statistics
in action, including from the perspective of statistical workers, and attempts in the
late-1950s to resolve ‘challenges generated by socialist statistics’ (p. 20).
Ghosh’s account suggests that at least three things were at stake in early Maoist
debates on statistics. First, the ‘nature of social reality’ and the role ‘of mathematical
statistics… in ascertaining that reality’ (p. 5). Second, the appropriate means of
erasing ‘national humiliation’ entailed by a ‘lack of factual self-knowledge’ and
making China ‘legible’ in modern terms (pp. 58–59). Third, the distinction
between the new regime and both the country’s feudal past as well as bourgeoisie
imitators of ‘shameful’ Anglo-American methods (p. 112).
Ghosh points out that unlike Republican China, Maoist China’s search for
answers was restricted by its political orientation. This constrained both the
choice of statistical methods and design of the statistical system as Soviet-
inspired statisticians maintained that the natural and social realms were not only
analytically separable but also amenable to distinct statistical tools. ‘Bourgeois’
mathematical statistics was fit only for the natural realm governed by universal
laws, while the social realm had to be studied using ‘socialist’ statistics (p. 48,
56). This separation meant that advances in sample surveys bypassed China
resulting in heavier demands on the limited trained manpower, information
overload for policy-makers, undue delays and even sustained inaccuracies. In
practice, what counted as socialist statistics was a fragile combination of Soviet

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