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Accepting difference, seeking common ground: Sino-Indian statistical exchanges 1951–1959



Starting as early as 1951, and with increasing urgency after 1956, Chinese and Indian statisticians traded visits as they sought to learn from each other's experiences. At the heart of these exchanges was the desire to learn more about a cutting-edge statistical method, random sampling, which, while technically complex, held great practical salience for large and diverse countries such as China and India. This paper draws upon unpublished documents, letters, institutional archives, memoirs, oral history and newspaper reports to reconstruct the sequence of these exchanges, their outcomes and the concerns of the participants. The exchanges demonstrate not only the crucial role played by Indian statisticians in the rise of random sampling, but also the amount of resistance these methods generated in places like China (and the Soviet Union). As a clear instance of South–South scientific exchange, they also compel a broadening of our understanding of early Cold War scientific networks, which should no longer be dominated by centre–periphery models that take either the USSR or the US as the centre. Finally, the exchanges hint at the varied nature of post-1949 Sino-Indian history, a subfield still dominated by geopolitics and a focus on the causes, course and legacy of the Sino-Indian War of 1962.

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1 Foreign Ministry Archives, Beijing (subsequently FMA), File 203-00084-01, 118.

2 P.C. Mahalanobis to Pitambar Pant, 16 December 1956, P.C. Mahalanobis Memorial Museum and Archive (subsequently PCMMMA), File No 915, 1953-1956.

3 FMA 105-00229-01, 45.

4 Li Fuchun 李富春, ‘Speech at the 1st National Statistics Meeting’, Beijing, 1951.

5 The Sino-Soviet alliance has been the subject of renewed interest in recent years, resulting in studies that approach the alliance and its collapse from a multiplicity of perspectives. For some representative works see Thomas P. Bernstein and Hua-yu Li (eds.), China Learns from the Soviet Union, 1949–Present, New York: Lexington Books, 2000; Austin Jersild, Sino-Soviet Alliance: An International History, Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2014; Lorenz Lüthi, The Sino-Soviet Split: Cold War in the Communist World, Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2008; and Odd Arne Westad, Brothers in Arms: The Rise and Fall of the Sino-Soviet Alliance, 1945–1963, Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1998.

6 There is a growing literature on the history of development and aid in the post-Second World War era, much of it through the prism of US- or Soviet-centred networks of aid and influence. Representative works include Nick Cullather, The Hungry World: America's Cold War Battle against Poverty in Asia, Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2010; David Ekbladh, The Great American Mission: Modernization and the Construction of an American World Order, 1914 to the Present, Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2010; Daniel Immerwahr, The Village Ideal: The United States, Community Development, and the World, Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2014; Westad, op. cit. (5); and Bernstein and Li, op. cit. (5). Among the latest works to offer a somewhat different framework is Jeremy Friedman, Shadow Cold War: The Sino-Soviet Competition for the Third World, Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2015.

7 Mahalanobis, P.C., ‘Why Statistics?’, Sankhya: The Indian Journal of Statistics (1950) 10(3), pp. 195228, 195–196.

8 For more on this fairly well-documented history see, in particular, Ian Hacking, The Taming of Chance, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1990; Theodore Porter, The Rise of Statistical Thinking, 1820–1900, Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1986; Porter, Trust in Numbers: The Pursuit of Objectivity in Science and Public Life, Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1995.

9 For a history of the UN and its role in this process see Michael Ward, Quantifying the World: UN Ideas and Statistics, Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2004.

10 Rao, C.R., ‘Prasantha Chandra Mahalanobis, 1893–1972’, Biographical Memoirs of Fellows of the Royal Society (1973) 19, pp. 454492, 455.

11 A useful overview of Mahalanobis's activities and achievements is Rao, op. cit. (10). For a longer treatment see Ashok Rudra, Prasanta Chandra Mahalanobis: A Biography, New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 1996.

12 Mahalanobis, op. cit. (7), pp. 196.

13 The commission is the ‘highest body of the global statistical system … It is the highest decision making body for international statistical activities especially the setting of statistical standards, the development of concepts and methods and their implementation at the national and international level’, at, accessed 21 January 2016.

14 Jelke Bethlehem, The Rise of Survey Sampling, discussion paper 09015, The Hague: Statistics Netherland, 2009.

15 Rao, op. cit. (10), p. 472.

16 Bethlehem, op. cit. (14), p. 16.

17 Ronald Aylmer Fisher (1890–1962) was a statistician, geneticist and evolutionary biologist, whose contributions in statistics include the analysis of variance (ANOVA), the method of maximum likelihood, the derivation of various sampling distributions, and experimental design. As a result of these contributions, many regard him as one of the principal creators of modern statistics. For more see Yates, F. and Mather, K., ‘Ronald Aylmer Fisher 1890–1962’, Biographical Memoirs of Fellows of the Royal Society (1963) 9, pp. 91129.

18 Bethlehem , op. cit. (14), p. 16.

19 The mathematical statistician Harold Hotelling observed, ‘No technique of random samples has, so far as I can find, been developed in the United States or elsewhere, which can compare in accuracy with that described by Professor Mahalanobis.’ Fellow statistical luminary R.A. Fisher noted, ‘The I.S.I. has taken the lead in the original development of the technique of sample surveys, the most potent fact finding process available to the administration.’ See: Rao, op. cit. (10), pp. 472.

20 Rao, op. cit. (10), pp. 473. Within India, Mahalanobis had no dearth of detractors. For more on his critics and alternative approaches to sampling see Gore, A.P., ‘P.V. Sukhatme: A “Social” Statistician’, Economic and Political Weekly (1997) 32(6), pp. 257258. Among those who took strong exception to Mahalanobis's domination of Indian statistics were the scientists Homi J. Bhabha and D.D. Kosambi. For more see Kosambi to Bhabha, Tata Institute for Fundamental Research, D-2004-0387-5 and D-2004-0387-8.

21 United Nations Statistical Commission, ‘The preparation of sampling survey reports’, Statistical Papers, Series C, No 1, Lake Success, New York, 1950. A follow-up report was published in 1964, with Mahalanobis serving as the sub-commission's vice chairman. See United Nations Statistical Commission, ‘Recommendations for the preparation of sampling survey reports (provisional issue)’, Statistical Papers, Series C, No 1, Rev. 2, New York, 1964.

22 P.C. Mahalanobis, ‘Statistics must have a purpose’, Samvadadhvam, July 1956, pp. 3–10.

23 On alternatives to the Mahalanobis model and on contemporary debates surrounding planning strategies see Meghnad Desai, ‘Development perspectives: was there an alternative to Mahalanobis?’, in Isher Judge Ahluwalia (ed.), India's Economic Reforms and Development: Essays for Manmohan Singh, New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 2012, pp. 43–52.

24 Mahalanobis had tried to bring the conference to India in 1949, but Switzerland's invitation was favoured instead. See File EA/UN-I/9(58)-UNI, 1949, National Archives of India, New Delhi.

25 The ISI annual reports carry long lists of visiting scientists of varying disciplinary and ideological persuasions. Mahalanobis himself was a great traveller and the annual reports usually also devoted a few pages to his global travels. By the end of the decade, some exasperated friends and colleagues began to worry that the administration of the ISI was suffering as a result. In 1960 this issue even drove J.B.S. Haldane, then a full-time professor at the institute, to quit in protest. For more on Haldane and Mahalanobis see Ramachandra Guha, An Anthropologist among Marxists and Other Essays, New Delhi: Permanent Black, 2001, pp. 134–135.

26 Professor Mahalanobis welcomes Chou En-Lai’, Samvadadhvam (1957) 1(3), pp. 3032.

27 The larger question of how the PRC built statistical capacity during the 1950s is the subject of my dissertation and book manuscript now in progress. Arunabh Ghosh, ‘Making it count: statistics and state–society relations in the early People's Republic of China, 1949–1959’, PhD dissertation, Columbia University, 2014.

28 FMA 105-00229-01, 22 (original in English). Di Chaobai (1910–1978) was an economist who was appointed director of the Department of Statistics of the Central Financial and Economic Committee in July 1948. In 1953 he was the head of the Department of Comprehensive Statistics at the SSB.

29 On ‘boundary-making’ see Thomas F. Gieryn, Cultural Boundaries of Science: Credibility on the Line, Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1999. On the 1954 conference see Ostrovitianov, K.V. and J.M., ‘The discussion on statistics summed up’, Soviet Studies (January 1955) 6(3), pp. 321331.

30 The Chinese is dianxing diaocha or zhongdian diaocha. ‘Complete-enumeration periodical-report system’ is how the Chinese themselves translated (quanmian) tongji baobiao zhidu. FMA 105-00530-05, 11–12.

31 See, for instance, Beijing Municipal Archives, Beijing (subsequently BMA), 133-001-00091; BMA 008-011-00054; BMA 002-020-00670, 28, 30-32; BMA 002-005-00088; and BMA 133-001-00043.

32 P.C. Mahalanobis, ‘Some impressions of a visit to China 19 June–11 July 1957’, unpublished manuscript, PCMMMA, 1957, pp. 4–5.

33 Sihua, Wang, ‘Jieshao yindu tongji gongzuo, jiji kaizhan quanguo chouyang diaocha’, Tongji gongzuo (1957) 6, pp. 810, 17. The article was reproduced in Wang Sihua tongji lunwenji, Beijing: China Statistics Press, 1986, pp. 95–102.

34 Zhou Enlai, ‘On the question of intellectuals’, in Robert R. Bowie and John K. Fairbank (eds.), Communist China 1955–1959: Policy Documents and Analysis, Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1963, pp. 128–144.

35 They entered the PRC through Shenzhen on 8 July 1956 and departed on 17 August.

36 Indian Statistical Institute, Annual Report, April 1956–March 1957, Kolkata, 1957, p. 84.

37 Indian Statistical Institute, op. cit. (36), p. 84.

38 FMA 105-00487-02, 5.

39 FMA 105-00487-02, 9.

40 FMA 105-00487-02, 30.

41 FMA 105-00487-02, 3.

42 Samvadadhvam (1957) 1(3), p. 20.

43 Wang Sihua, ‘Kaocha yindu tongji gongzuo de baogao’, report delivered at the 6th Annual Statistical Work Conference in Beijing, September 1957, published in Tongji gongzuo zhongyao wenjian huibian-disanji, Beijing: Statistical Press, 1959, pp. 90–97, 90. The other countries included the Netherlands, the United States, Lebanon, Thailand, Pakistan, Japan, Switzerland and the United Kingdom. See Samvadadhvam (1957) 1(3).

44 Samvadadhvam (1957) 1(3), p. 16.

45 Wang, op. cit. (33). Dai Shiguang, Wang's fellow delegation member, also wrote an article on India's sample survey system but it was entirely factual in nature and did not seek to make any recommendations. See Shiguang, Dai, ‘Yindu de quanguo chouyang diaocha: shehui jingji diaocha’, Tongji gongzuo (1957) 9, pp. 26.

46 Wang, op. cit. (33), pp. 100–101.

47 Wang, op. cit. (33), pp. 101–103.

48 Unless specified otherwise, the primary source material for Mahalanobis's activities in China is FMA 105-00530-06. This archival file consists of a series of fourteen bulletins issued by the office in charge of handling his affairs (jiedai bangongshi) and covers the entire duration of his stay in the People's Republic.

49 FMA 105-00530-05, 3.

50 FMA 105-00530-05, 13–18.

51 Mahalanobis, op. cit. (32), p. 1.

52 FMA 105-00530-06, 3.

53 Mahalanobis to Pitambar Pant, 3 July 1954, Papers of Pitambar Pant (190 LII), Nehru Memorial Museum and Library, New Delhi, p. 49.

54 Mahalanobis, op. cit. (32), p. 5. Later in the trip he would inform his hosts that ever since 1947 the Soviet Union had not attended any sample-survey activities organized by the International Statistical Institute. FMA 105-00530-06, 15.

55 Mahalanobis, op. cit. (32), p. 6.

56 Mahalanobis, op. cit. (32), pp. 1–3.

57 Much of the description in the above two paragraphs is from Mahalanobis, op. cit. (32), pp. 3–4.

58 Mahalanobis, op. cit. (32), p. 1.

59 Ni Jiaxun 倪加勋, then an undergraduate at Renmin University, recalled attending one of these lectures. According to him, most in the audience did not follow much of what was said. He remembered it as an important event at the university, however. I conducted two interviews with Ni in Beijing in 2011, on 29 March and 7 September.

60 Mahalanobis, op. cit. (32), pp. 6–7. On Lahiri's lectures, the SSB Bulletin from 5 July stated that there were over twenty people present and that the ‘discussion was a little too specialized, a little too technical in nature’. FMA 105-00530-06, 62–63.

61 Yindu mahalanuobisi jiaoshou fanghua tongji baogaoji, Beijing: Statistical Press, 1958.

62 FMA 105-00530-06, 53–60.

63 FMA 105-00530-06, 53–60, 57.

64 FMA 105-00530-06, 47–48.

65 FMA 105-00530-06, 68–71.

66 Mahalanobis, op. cit. (32), p. 10.

67 People's Daily, 10 July 1957, p. 1.

68 Wang, op. cit. (43), pp. 90–97.

69 Wang, op. cit. (43), p. 91.

70 Wang, op. cit. (43), p. 94.

71 Wang, op. cit. (43), p. 95.

72 Wang, op. cit. (43), p. 96.

73 Wang, op. cit. (43), p. 96.

74 Unless otherwise noted, this section draws primarily on oral-history interviews conducted with Gong Jianyao and Wu Hui. I met Wu in Beijing on 8 September 2011. I met Gong, who lives in Guangzhou, a week later on 14 September 2011.

75 Both Wu and Gong recalled Mahalanobis fondly, observing that he left a rather deep impression on them. In a 2001 article published in China Statistics, Gong went so far as to claim that two professor Mas had played a hugely inspirational and instrumental role in his life. The first was Ma Yinchu 马寅初 (1882–1982), the well-known economist and one-time president of Beijing University, persecuted during the late 1950s for his championing of birth control. The second Professor Ma was none other than Mahalanobis himself. See Gong Jianyao, ‘Shidao qinghuai’, China Statistics, May 2001, pp. 52–54.

76 Jianyao, Gong, ‘Woguo chouyangfa yanjiu yu shijian de fazhan’, Xi'an tongji xueyuan xuebao (1994) 2(9), pp. 714, 10.

77 See, for instance ‘Zhaokai quanguo tongji baoding xianchang huiyi de baogao’, in Tongji gongzuo zhongyao gongzuo huibian, vol. 3, Beijing: Statistical Press, 1959.

78 Gong, op. cit. (76), pp. 10–11. During my interview with him, Gong recalled how bad an effect the Baoding meeting had on statistical work.

79 Gong, op. cit. (76), p. 11. Both Gong and Wu would play major roles in subsequent years in statistical work and were important players in the post-1978 reform of statistics.

80 FMA 105-00647-02, 1.

81 FMA 105-00647-02, 4.

82 FMA 105-00647-02, 5–9.

83 People's Daily, 13 August 1959, p. 4.

84 FMA 105-00656-02, 1–9.

Research for this paper was supported by grants from the American Council of Learned Societies, the Social Science Research Council and Columbia University. I would also like to thank the participants of the Intersections workshop and the anonymous reviewers for their trenchant feedback on earlier drafts.


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