Showing posts with label Data Analysis. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Data Analysis. Show all posts

Monday, August 3, 2015

Many of China's 109 Million "Overseas" Travelers Never Left China

People in Zhuhai walking away from the border gate with Macau
People in Zhuhai, China, walking away from the border gate to Macau, China (February 2015)

The China National Tourism Administration (CNTA) claims mainland Chinese citizens traveled "overseas" more than 100 million times last year, the most ever. This statistic is often mentioned in media reports and commentary regarding growing opportunities for countries to attract international travelers from China and their money (examples from The New York Times, Bloomberg Business, Xinhua, and Quartz). But numbers from China often come with big caveats which significantly impact their meaning. This one is no exception.

To be clear, the statistic does not cover citizens of Hong Kong or Macau, both Special Administrative Regions where a number of rules and regulations differ from the rest of China. One possible reason for omitting the two cities is if CNTA included them it would be at a loss to explain why it wasn't also including Taiwan. The People's Republic of China claims Taiwan but doesn't currently control it. Presumably CNTA doesn't have the same access to Taiwan's travel data. So clumping Taiwan, Hong Kong, and Macau together, a common thing to do in China, helps CNTA avoid highlighting a delicate issue. And there can be meaningful reasons for not including data about Hong Kong's and Macau's citizens, including many countries making it easier for them to visit by having more generous entry rules for them than for citizens of mainland China.

Less mentioned and more significant than the statistic excluding people traveling from Hong Kong and Macau is it including people traveling from mainland China to Hong Kong and Macau, where mainland Chinese need a special permit to visit. This means when a Chinese citizen living in Shenzhen travels to Hong Kong it could count as "overseas" travel despite the cities sharing a border easily crossed by foot and both undisputedly being part of the People's Republic of China. The same holds true for Macau, which borders Zhuhai.

I can't find a breakdown of the statistic for all of 2014, which was 109 million, on CNTA's website. However, in December last year CNTA provided additional details for the year's first 11 months when the number had already surpassed 100 million. According to CNTA, of those more than 100 million "outbound tours" from January through November last year:
Overseas tourist destinations of Mainland Chinese citizens are: Asia (89.5%, in which Hong Kong, Macau and Taiwan account for 70.4%), Europe (3.5%), Africa (3.0%), Americas (2.7%), Oceania (1.1%), and other regions (0.2%).
Reported elsewhere, Taiwan had 2.8 million mainland Chinese tourist arrivals for all of last year. Hong Kong and Macau clearly account for a large majority of the trips. Even in the most extreme case, the final numbers for the year could not change this point.

So indicating Chinese citizens made 100 million "overseas" or "international" trips is highly misleading at best. This doesn't mean there aren't growing opportunities for countries such as the U.S. to attract international travelers from China or influence them to spend more money. I think there are. But citing the 100 million statistic isn't usually going to be a great way to make that case.

Friday, April 27, 2012

Mortal Coils: The Risks of China's Collapsing Sidewalks

Previously I shared a video of girl in Xi'an, Shaanxi province who fell into a hole created by a collapsed sidewalk. I explained why I thought this and other individual incidents were useful in considering why people do or do not help accident victims in China. However, I did not make any broad claims based solely on these incidents.

Anthony Tao on Beijing Cream also referenced the sidewalk accident in Xi'an. After mentioning a more tragic case of a sidewalk collapsing in Beijing, Tao expressed his interpretation of the events:
Now we have confirmation that sidewalks are unsafe. What next, falling anvils? How next will death conspire to end our mortal coils by the most indecorous devices?
If Tao had claimed "sidewalks can be unsafe" I would not argue, although I would question its value. Just about anything can be unsafe. However, Tao makes a stronger claim of which I see two possible interpretations.

One, Tao may be claiming that two people experiencing a collapsed sidewalk out of more than 1.3 billion indicates a great risk. If those are the odds of being a victim of such an accident I will take them. They are far better than what I accept when riding in cars or engaging in a variety of other activities that are no less important than walking on sidewalks.

Two, Tao may be claiming there is a more widespread problem. Of course, this could be true, and it may be worthwhile for people to explore the issue. But at the moment, where is the evidence to say "we have confirmation that sidewalks are unsafe"? On their own these two experiences are woefully little evidence to make such a claim.

In a country the size of China a variety of eye-catching incidents are sure to occur--something to keep in mind when reading "amazing" stories from this region. Such stories can sometimes be relevant to larger scale issues and serve as meaningful examples. But like informally collected online comments, care needs to be taken in applying them to broader issues.

So, I am far from convinced that the label "unsafe" is deserved for sidewalks in China--at least in this regard. At the moment I am not particularly worried people will one day ponder how I could "have shuffled off this mortal coil" due to a collapsed sidewalk. Falling anvils are another story for me, though. Someday I will share an experience I had in Hong Kong with a heavy object which fell from above me. Indeed, it could have been a most indecorous manner to cease "to be".

Wednesday, April 4, 2012

Interpreting Informally Collected Online Comments: The Value of Informed Opinions

The online comments written by Chinese readers of news sites and users of social networking services such as Sina Weibo provide a readily available source for gauging viewpoints on a variety of issues. Although the practice of using online comments in this way is not specific to China, in a country where there are greater challenges faced in judging public sentiment online comments can be especially attractive. However, there are a variety of possible pitfalls in interpreting and presenting online comments, and they vary depending on one's goals in using them. Exploring the full extent is beyond the scope of what I could cover in a single post. For now, I will discuss two examples that highlight how knowledgeable people can potentially provide valuable insights in interpreting online comments, even if they are not likely collected in a rigorously methodical manner.

In the first example, several months ago in his blog on The New Yorker Evan Osnos discussed the different viewpoints of the Chinese government and the Chinese people regarding Russian Prime Minister (and now President-elect) Vladimir Putin:
And at the grassroots? Feelings toward Putin and his people is, well, less welcoming. “Take the party back, take dictatorship back and take Leninism back,” a commentator calling himself “Headmaster II” posted to the Russian Embassy’s Chinese feed the other day. Another added: “Russia is shameless. Putin is manipulating the elections.”

There are thousands of these kinds of messages stacked up, the BBC monitoring service discovered, and it’s safe to assume this was not the reaction that the Russian Embassy in Beijing had in mind when it debuted on Weibo, the Chinese Twitter, earlier this month with the message: “Hello everyone! This is the Russian Embassy in China!… All are welcome to follow us!” People did not miss the opportunity: “I don’t like Russia. First of all, it robbed us of our territories. (Just google ‘border skirmishes’) Secondly, it massacred my compatriots. Thirdly, its disastrous influence continues to this day!” the journalist Chen Baocheng wrote on Weibo.

What are we to make of this? If the Chinese online public were on the couch, its shrink might suggest it is projecting.
Notably, Osnos does not simply present the comments and discuss their surface meaning but instead suggests that they represent deeper attitudes regarding Chinese politics.

In the second example, just over a month ago U.S. President Barack Obama's Google Plus page was overwhelmed with Chinese comments during a period when Google Plus was unblocked in mainland China. Stephanie Ho on Voice of America shared Jeffrey Goldkorn's interpretation of the comments:
"Whether they were calling on the United States to liberate the Chinese Internet or calling on Obama to stop being an imperialist, the tone was overwhelmingly humorous," Goldkorn said. "So I don't think anyone should take this as an indicator of U.S.-Chinese relations, or I don't think one should read too much into this. I think for lots of people participating, this was fun, just a game."

He adds that this kind of humor has its roots in Chinese culture.

"You know there is this idea in China that has been adapted for the Internet of 'weiguan,' of standing around and looking at something interesting, and this seems to me like a very weiguan behavior, where people probably spread virally that 'Hey, you can comment on Obama's page,' and people went to have a look, and they left comments."

Goldkorn adds that many Chinese would visit President Obama's webpage simply because it is such a novelty to leave comments for a well-known top leader, because they do not have the same opportunities in their own country. But he warns that these comments do not accurately represent public opinion throughout the country.

"It shows you one aspect of public opinion as held by very high-tech savvy Internet users, most of whom are in their 20s or 30s," he said. "To read it as what all people in China are thinking, it would be wrong."
Like Osnos, Goldkorn suggests that there is a different meaning in the comments than may appear to some. But in this case, Goldkorn believes the comments are more representative of people having fun than of any deeply held political views.

Both cases involve online comments left (presumably) by Chinese directed toward foreign governments and their representatives. However, Osnos and Goldkorn interpret the motivations for the comments very differently. Given that these are examples of two different events with two different sets of comments, it could be that both interpretations are correct. It could also be that Osnos and Goldkorn would reach identical interpretations for the same set of comments. What I most want to emphasize, though, is that I doubt many casual observers not familiar with China would have on their own discerned these potential interpretations. Regardless of whether they are ultimately correct, both Osnos and Goldkorn have a familiarity with China that enables them to provide valuable insights and perspectives.

To be clear, I believe one should be healthily skeptical of broader claims based on online comments in any country. In many cases the comments for an article or a post are not collected in any rigorous manner (or at the very least any such method is not described so that it can be evaluated) to ensure that they are meaningfully representative. And even if they are representative, at best they typically can only be said to represent "online users who are willing to comment publicly about topic X on service Y". That may be interesting, but it is sometimes not the claim being made. In the above examples, Goldkorn is careful to note that public opinion of Internet users cannot be taken as representative of "all people in China", and Osnos limits his comments to the "Chinese online public". Also, I am not sure that Goldkorn would strongly claim the select comments are necessarily representative of Chinese Internet users or that Osnos would disagree that his quotes may truly represent the "Chinese online public who are willing to comment about Putin on Sina Weibo".

Additionally, I do not mean to suggest that those who are not familiar with China have no role in interpreting online comments. In fact, "outside" perspectives can be invaluable when developed and applied constructively. However, people interpreting on their own the translations of a set of comments from an unfamiliar culture that have been selected in an unclear manner seems to open the door for immense misunderstanding.

There is a certain degree of trust placed on people such as Osnos and Goldkorn, and they have each in their own way sought to earn that trust. In my eyes they are not making any formal research claims in the above cases but instead drawing upon their previous knowledge about China to provide thoughtful analysis regarding a set of collected online comments -- including the judgement as to whether they are meaningfully representative. In their proper context they can add value as part of an ongoing exploration to better understand China.

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

"Fallows was wrong"

As I'm still waiting for my missing post to reappear (or be told by Blogger it has gone to a more heavenly cloud than The Cloud), I think it's appropriate to do a post on something else that is missing (and of interest to me) in another case: data.

James Fallows includes at the end of a recent post a reference to his earlier claim about the impact of President Obama's release of his long-form birth certificate on the ridiculous debate over the President's place of birth:
"As Andrew Sullivan has pointed out, I guessed that even the long-firm birth certificate wouldn't change the minds of many hard-core birthers. I am very glad that real-world results are different and that, on this issue at least, actual evidence seems to have had some effect."
However, a look at Andrew Sullivan's post on The Dish with its charming "Fallows was wrong" suggests to me that Fallows shouldn't give up on his claim just based on that post. [note: I'm not sure if Sullivan's post was the sole piece of information that swayed Fallows.  It doesn't matter for my following points.]  Sullivan shares the following poll:
Apparently, this shows that Obama revealing his long-form birth certificate made an impact in changing people's minds.  As suggested in some opinions of others later shared by Sullivan (see here) the source of the change may be more about the killing of Bin Laden than the release of the long-form birth certificate.  It would be difficult to tease those two possibilities apart given the events were only separated by days.

But even if one disregards the possible influence of Bin Laden's death, it would be easy to be unconvinced by the data above because:
  • It's just one poll.  It could be an outlier.
  • There is no indication that the differences between the two years are statistically significant.  
  • It is possible that opinions on the issue fluctuate greatly over short periods of time so the recent poll may not be an accurate stable measure.
  • It compares two time points one year apart.  
It's the last point that really jumps out at me.  It is possible some or all of the above change occurred prior to Obama's releasing his long-form certificate.  One year leaves plenty of time for opinion to change for a variety of reasons and makes it very difficult to pinpoint the cause of any change -- a lot happens in one year.  For example, possibly some simply grew to accept Obama as President because "time can heal" and they became less motivated to believe he was not born in the US.

Polls from multiple time points, especially including one from a "before" time point far more proximate to Obama's announcement, would help address the above issues.  Sure, no matter how close the before and after polls one could argue that there was another cause.  But if there was a sudden and unusual significant change (compared to previous changes in opinion over comparable periods of time) between the days or even weeks before the announcement and those afterward a more solid argument could be made it was the result of Obama releasing his long-form certificate.

I realize in this case the ideal set of polling data might be unavailable.  Regardless, even just finding a more proximate comparison point than 1 year ago would make a big difference.  It appears that Public Policy Polling has such data (a link to a PDF report is provided in the relevant post here).  PPP writes:
"In February we found that 51% of Republican primary voters thought Barack Obama was not born in the United States. Now with the release of his birth certificate only 34% of GOP partisans fall into that camp... "
Again, I'd like to see more data.  But at least this offers a more reasonable point of comparison.  On the side, while PPP's data adds evidence that there was a change of opinion as a result of Obama's announcement, 34% of Republican primary voters still thinking Obama was not born in the United States also suggests there remains a large number of people in a "post-factual world".

So, the release of the the long form birth certificate may indeed have changed some minds of those who were previously convinced Obama was born outside of the US.  However, the data shared by Sullivan in the referenced post doesn't answer the question, even if you disregard the possible impact of Bin Laden's death -- at least another serving of data from The Dish is needed.