Xi and top Chinese leaders hold key economic meeting as COVID spikes

  • The WHO issues a rare warning
  • Infections are increasing in the capital and other cities
  • Important business meeting to finalize growth targets

HONG KONG/BEJING, Dec 14 (Reuters) – Chinese President Xi Jinping, his ruling Politburo and top government officials are set to meet over the next two days to plan a recovery for China’s battered economy as the nation grapples with a surge in COVID-19 -19 infections is faced .

The key annual economic policy conference comes a week after the leadership abandoned its strict “zero-COVID” controls, amid viral infections surge in the capital Beijing.

The policy had been championed by Xi but last month sparked the largest protests of his 10-year presidency.

The behind-closed-doors annual Central Economic Work Conference will be held Thursday through Friday, according to three sources with direct knowledge of the matter.

Policy insiders and economic analysts are watching closely, saying the leadership is likely to plan further stimulus moves and discuss growth targets.

Global investors, already caught off guard by virus policy reversals, are now finding themselves blindly caught up in a chaotic post-pandemic transition, lacking the proper data to track rising infections and potential threats to the economy in the coming months.

Economists estimate China’s growth has slowed to about 3% this year, well below the official target of about 5.5%, marking one of China’s worst performances in nearly half a century.

State media reported late Tuesday that about 50 people in hospitals in Beijing are seriously or critically ill, while infections are also spreading in the cities of Wuhan and Chengdu and Hebei province, according to medical workers, social media posts and state press reports gain weight .

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But fewer tests have made it impossible to track accurate case counts, and the National Health Commission (NHC) said it would stop reporting new asymptomatic COVID-19 infections beginning Wednesday because it’s difficult to pinpoint the total, and broke with a practice it has pursued for the most part over the past three years.

China’s yuan, which is on track for its worst year since 1994 when China unified official and market exchange rates, weakened against the dollar on Wednesday, with traders also citing concerns about a renewed surge in infections.

The surge in case numbers comes a week after Chinese authorities previously lifted extensive testing and quarantine rules, adjusting to a world that has largely reopened three years after COVID emerged.

The enthusiasm that greeted these changes has quickly faded amid mounting evidence that China may pay a price for protecting a population that lacks “herd immunity” and has low vaccination rates among the elderly.

‘PRICE WE PAY’

The World Health Organization warned of “very difficult” times, emphasizing the general fear of a wave of infections in a population of 1.4 billion people.

“It’s always very difficult for any country to get out of a situation where you had very, very tight controls,” WHO spokeswoman Margaret Harris said in Geneva, adding that China is facing a “very hard and difficult time”. .

The number of official COVID cases in China has been falling in recent weeks, but that has coincided with a drop in testing and is increasingly at odds with the situation on the ground.

China has not reported any COVID-related deaths since December 3, before the country began easing curbs.

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In the three years since the pandemic broke out in the central Chinese city of Wuhan, China has reported just 5,235 COVID-related deaths – a tiny fraction of its population and extremely low by global standards.

Long lines outside fever clinics, buildings attached to hospitals that search for infectious diseases in mainland China, have been a common sight in Beijing and other cities in recent days. National health authorities said they had opened over 47,000 fever clinics as of Wednesday.

“This is the price we pay to be freer,” a 26-year-old surnamed Liu, who works in marketing, told Reuters on the streets of the capital.

“Now it is important that we increase our awareness of self-protection. I think now the risk depends on individuals,” she added, asking for anonymity.

In Shanghai, China’s most populous city, at least seven schools have announced they will halt in-person classes due to COVID cases, with classes going online, according to parents and releases from Reuters.

Infections are expected to spread across the country in the coming weeks as some people who have been unable to travel return to their home towns and villages.

State media reports on Wednesday said daily traffic flows at the main train station in the technology hub of Hangzhou more than doubled to 128,000 as young people headed home.

The mass movement of people will culminate in the Lunar New Year holiday, which begins Jan. 22, after domestic travel has been restricted for the past three years.

Road and air travel in China, the world’s second-largest oil consumer, has already rebounded strongly following the easing, improving the fuel demand outlook and supporting crude oil prices.

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Top Chinese health officials have downplayed the threat posed by the disease and in recent weeks have pushed the idea of ​​self-sufficiency, a dramatic reversal from previous reports that the virus must be eliminated.

The National Health Commission said it will roll out the second COVID-19 vaccine boosters for high-risk groups and the elderly over 60.

Reporting by Bernard Orr and Liz Lee in Beijing and Brenda Goh, Casey Hall, Winni Zhou, David Stanway and Shen Yiming in Shanghai; Additional reporting by Xu Jing in Beijing; writing by John Geddie and Greg Torode; Edited by Simon Cameron-Moore and Raju Gopalakrishnan

Our standards: The Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.

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