China sets ‘low bar’ for GDP growth, pledges more jobs

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    BEIJING- China on Friday set a modest annual economic growth target, at above 6 percent, and pledged to create more jobs in cities than last year, as the world’s second-biggest economy planned a careful course out of a year disrupted by COVID-19.

    In 2020, China dropped a gross domestic product growth target from the premier’s work report for the first time since 2002 after the pandemic devastated its economy. China’s GDP expanded 2.3 percent last year, the weakest in 44 years but making it the only major economy to report growth.

    “As a general target, China’s growth rate has been set at over 6 percent for this year,” Premier Li Keqiang said in his 2021 work report. “In setting this target, we have taken into account the recovery of economic activity.”

    But the 2021 target was significantly below the consensus of analysts, who expect growth could beat 8 percent this year. Chinese shares fell.

    China’s conservative growth target reflects a public effort to demonstrate a return to economic stability after last year’s COVID-19 upheaval, policy advisers said, while also keeping a lid on appetite for debt and risk.

    “It’s obvious this year’s growth will be over 6 percent. The purpose is to tell people that we should focus on higher quality growth,” Yao Jingyuan, an adviser to China’s cabinet, told Reuters.

    While the low GDP target does not mean the government will rush to tighten policy, with many parts of the economy still struggling, it will give planners more room to push reforms.

    Premier Li pledged to spur domestic consumption and innovation, as part of a plan to reduce reliance on overseas markets and technology for long-term development.

    As such, China plans to boost annual research and development spending by more than 7 percent every year until 2025.

    “The target should be a bottom line. We should have more room for pushing forward difficult reforms,” said Xu Hongcai, deputy director of the economic policy commission at China Association of Policy Science.

    In 2021, China will aim to create more than 11 million new urban jobs, Li said in his report delivered at the opening of this year’s meeting of parliament, up from last year’s goal of over 9 million and in line with recent years.

    The government is targeting a 2021 budget deficit of around 3.2 percent of GDP, less than a goal of above 3.6 percent last year, though giving room to fund infrastructure and aid small firms.

    Iris Pang, chief economist for Greater China at ING, said continued fiscal latitude was a more meaningful target than the growth target.

    “The very low GDP growth target is like there is no target at all because the consensus is 8 percent and my forecast is 7 percent,” Pang told Reuters.

    “I believe that most of the money will be used for technology R&D and continue to provide some buffer for job stability just in case COVID will have a comeback,” she added.