China economy grows 4.8 pct in first quarter as virus bites

Beiyi Seow, Agence France-Presse

Posted at Apr 18 2022 11:04 AM | Updated as of Apr 18 2022 11:34 AM

BEIJING - China's economy grew 4.8 percent in the first quarter, the National Bureau of Statistics said Monday, warning of "significant challenges" ahead as a resurgence of the coronavirus threatens Beijing's ambitious annual target.

The world's second-biggest economy was already losing steam in the latter half of last year with a property slump and regulatory crackdowns.

But Beijing's unrelenting zero-Covid approach to outbreaks in multiple cities this year has clogged supply chains and locked down tens of millions of people -- including in the economic dynamos of Shanghai and Shenzhen as well as the northeastern grain basket of Jilin.

China's gross domestic product growth was 4.8 percent on-year in the first quarter, said the NBS on Monday, a figure that beat analysts' expectations and up on 4.0 percent in the final months of 2021.

But the data does not entirely take in the gnawing impact of the lockdown in Shanghai, which has left millions stuck at home for several weeks.

Virus restrictions hitting key cities in March also gouged at retail sales, driving up the unemployment rate.

It ups the ante on officials to meet the country's full-year growth target of around 5.5 percent, in a pivotal political period for President Xi Jinping who is eyeing another term in power at the Party Congress to be held later this year.

"With the domestic and international environment becoming increasingly complicated and uncertain, economic development is facing significant difficulties and challenges," said NBS spokesman Fu Linghui on Monday.

While China saw an uptick in manufacturing growth earlier this year -- with a shot in the arm from spending during the Lunar New Year holiday -- curbs on movement struck several parts of the country during March, disrupting businesses and keeping consumers at home.

Industrial production growth eased to 5.0 percent in March, NBS data showed, down from the January-February period.

Meanwhile, retail sales sank 3.5 percent and the urban unemployment rate ticked up to 5.8 percent last month.

"March activity data suggests that China's economy slowed, especially in household consumption," Tommy Wu, lead China economist at Oxford Economics, said in a note.

China's central government is trying to balance "minimising disruption against controlling the latest wave of Covid infections", he added, but warned of a drag on economic activity into May, if not longer.

Last week, carmakers including XPeng and Volkswagen warned of severe disruptions to supply chains and possibly even a halt on production completely if the lockdown on Shanghai's 25 million inhabitants persisted.

Major cities struck by Covid outbreaks include southern tech powerhouse Shenzhen, which went into full lockdown for almost a week in March, although it has since been reopened.

On Monday, Shanghai reported its first Covid deaths since the start of its lockdown -- all elderly patients -- on top of over 22,000 new positive cases.

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