Picture: REUTERS
Picture: REUTERS

Beijing — China’s economy grew a forecast-beating 6.9% in 2017, picking up steam for the first time since 2010 despite its battles against a massive debt and polluting factories, official data showed on Thursday.

The world’s second largest economy eclipsed the official target of about 6.5% and picked up pace from the 6.7% growth seen in 2016, which was the slowest for more than a quarter of a century.

The robust economic expansion indicated stability after slowing down since China last posted double-digit growth in 2010.

"The national economy has maintained the momentum of stable and sound development and exceeded the expectation with the economic vitality, impetus and potential released," National Statistics Bureau head Ning Jizhe said in a report. "We should also be aware that there are still difficulties and challenges confronting the economy and the improvement of quality and efficiency remains a daunting task."

The figure — which beat the 6.8% predicted by analysts surveyed by AFP — comes as China kicks its war on pollution into gear, halving industrial production for some steel smelters and mills this winter. The battle has brought unusual blue skies to Beijing, with the density of dangerous pollution — particulate PM2.5 — dropping by more than 50% in the final quarter of 2017.

China has largely relied on debt-fueled investment and exports to drive its tremendous economic growth of the past four decades but is now looking to move its economy to more sustainable consumption-based growth

However the latest data showed the economy expanding 6.8% in the last quarter of 2017, matching the third quarter figure though it was below the 6.9% from the first half of the year.

Ning dismissed questions on the reliability of China’s statistics raised after the coastal city of Tianjin and the autonomous region of Inner Mongolia admitted to inflating certain 2016 data. "The system for calculating China’s statistics data is not affected by a small number of places, or some places, or some companies" having accuracy issues with their data, he said.

The GDP reading follows strong trade data last week, which showed the humming global economy had propelled China’s export machine. "This momentum, especially the part fueled by external demand, may carry on well into 2018," said Wei Yao, chief China economist at Société Générale.

The country is also facing pressure to prevent a credit crisis, with local government debt growing 7.5% last year to $2.56-trillion, according to figures released on Wednesday.

China has largely relied on debt-fueled investment and exports to drive its tremendous economic growth of the past four decades but is now looking to move its economy to more sustainable consumption-based growth. The latest figures show the services industry grew 8% for the year with retail sales spiking at 10.2%, good news for the transition.

The International Monetary Fund (IMF) has repeatedly warned of risks stemming from China’s ballooning debt, saying last year that each extra dollar of debt is producing diminishing returns for China’s economy. China’s leaders appeared to wipe away some of those concerns at a critical planning meeting in December.

While vowing a crackdown on financial risk and local government debt, leaders called for a reasonable credit expansion this year. This flew in the face of IMF and other economists warnings that China must de-leverage.

Last year, China brought down the pace of debt accumulation but allowed overall credit growth, analysts say. "The bulls and the bears have never been so much in agreement since the financial crisis," said Larry Hu, head of China economics at Macquarie Group. "Most economists expect around 6.5% GDP growth in 2018," though last month, one of China’s top state-affiliated think-tanks forecast growth ticking slightly downwards to 6.7% this year.

However, potential headwinds and risks for China’s economy are brewing. US President Donald Trump is determined to change the balance of trade between the two large trading partners. China’s trade surplus with the US swelled 10% to $275.8bn last year, a record high.

In a telephone call with President Xi Jinping this week, Trump "expressed disappointment that the US’s trade deficit with China has continued to grow", the White House said. "President Trump made clear that the situation is not sustainable."

Trump has repeatedly insisted he will fight for more equitable trade with China. The US is expected to release the results of a major investigation into China’s intellectual property practices this year.

AFP

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