For decades, China’s progress has been summed up by one figure: GDP growth.
And in recent years, the government has pinned its mandate to rule on achieving GDP of at least 8% a year. As we all know, the pressure to hit the target is so strong, both centrally and across China’s provinces, that everyone does a bit of massaging to make sure they don’t look bad.
The careers of regional officials have depended on hitting the GDP goal. So, even if your city or province’s growth has been ok, it doesn’t look good to fall beneath the national average.
Cue Yu Zhengsheng, the party secretary for Shanghai and politburo member. The most powerful man in the city has admitted that this year Shanghai has "failed" to achieve the 9% increase that the rest of the country is likely to record.
Why Shanghai hasn’t grown by 9% is curious, given that the city’s companies are likely to have benefitted from last year’s surge in new bank loans, and given the enormous amounts that are being spent on construction work ahead of this year’s Shanghai Expo.
Indeed, failing to lead the country in economic growth when the world’s biggest business fair is about to take place on your doorstep is a loss of face.
Such a loss of face that Mr Yu has made some public comments about how GDP is no longer an important benchmark in a city like Shanghai. Just before Christmas, he told the Shanghai Economic Work Meeting that measures have to be taken to "play down" the GDP target’s importance and instead work out how to judge the city’s "transformation".
He wants a new system drawn up that will measure how wide and deep the city’s transformation has been each year, placing a greater value on moving up the value chain and on high-tech, rather than low-tech industries. It’s a good idea if he means it, and good news if China moves away from its obsession with GDP. My guess though is that these will be hollow words if Shanghai can record solid economic growth this year.