Chinese leaders vow to prop up economy as COVID spreads

  • Leaders vow to boost economy after long lockdowns
  • But infection waves dim near-term growth prospects
  • Beijing dropped many anti-virus curbs last week
  • Millions set to travel across country for Lunar New Year
  • China stocks ventilators, drugs, tests for rural areas

BEIJING, Dec 16 (Reuters) - President Xi Jinping and his senior officials pledged to shore up China's battered economy next year as the deaths of two veteran state journalists highlighted the worsening spread of COVID-19 in the capital Beijing.

Xi and his leaders ended their two-day Central Economic Work Conference with a call, via state media, to step up policy adjustments and strengthen coordination to support an economy that analysts estimate grew just 3% this year - its worst performance in nearly half a century.

The meeting comes days after the leadership jettisoned some of the world's toughest anti-COVID curbs and lockdowns that had been championed by Xi, but impaired the economy and sparked popular protests unprecedented in his decade-long rule.

China will strengthen overall coordination of epidemic policies, ensuring smooth "transition" during the current epidemic and social order, state media reported in its readout of the conference.

"We must insist on stability first next year while we strive for progress," the state media readout said.

That "transition" into a "year of stability" has started with virus infection spikes in Beijing and fears growing that COVID could sweep across China's 1.4 billion population as people take advantage of eased restrictions to travel during next month's Lunar New Year.

State media reported on Friday that two veteran Chinese state media journalists have died after contracting COVID-19 in the capital Beijing - among the first reported deaths since the government abandoned its "zero-COVID" policies on Dec. 7.

Yang Lianghua, 74, a former People's Daily reporter, died on Thursday, while Zhou Zhichun, 77, a former China Youth Daily editor, died a week earlier, financial magazine Caixin said, citing their families.

China's national health authority has not reported any official COVID deaths since the policy switch. The last official deaths were reported on Dec. 3, in Shandong and Sichuan provinces.

Reports of the deaths came as China set out urgent plans on Friday to protect rural communities from the virus as millions of city-dwellers plan their Lunar holidays, starting on Jan. 22, for the first time in years.

But the excitement that met the policy U-turn allowing them to travel has cooled amid concerns that China is unprepared for the coming wave of infections, and the blow it could deliver to the world's second-largest economy.

China reported 2,157 new symptomatic COVID-19 infections on Thursday, compared with 2,000 the previous day.

The official figures, however, do not show the whole picture as testing has dropped and are at odds with signs of a wider spread in cities where queues outside fever clinics and empty pharmacy shelves are common.

China's National Health Commission said on Friday it was ramping up vaccinations and building stocks of ventilators, essential drugs and test kits in rural areas. It also advised travellers to reduce contact with elderly relatives.

A day after the White House said the United States was ready to help if China requested it, a spokesperson for Australia's Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade said on Friday Canberra "stands ready" to continue COVID-19 collaboration that has so far included the supply of medical equipment and joint research work.

Mainland China's international borders remain largely shut, but recent decisions to abandon testing prior to domestic travel and disable apps that track people's journey history have freed up people to move around the country.

In a sign of the drive for economic recovery and an indication of the country’s reopening, business magazine Caixin reported on Friday that the government is seeking to aggressively increase both domestic and international flights by the end of next month.

One of China's most populous provinces, Henan, cancelled all holidays for healthcare staff until the end of March to ensure "a smooth transition" as COVID restrictions ease, state media reported.

Multiple cities also opened new vaccination sites to encourage the public to take booster shots, the state-run Global Times newspaper reported.

"Go all out" was the message from China's state asset regulator in a statement that urged government-owned drugmakers to ensure supplies of COVID-related medicines to meet "the rapid increase" in demand.

'EVERYONE WILL GET IT'

Thanks to the government's previously uncompromising controls, China got off lightly compared with many other countries during the pandemic over the past three years, but now many Chinese are resigned to catching the virus.

"Everyone will get it, I guess," a 29-year-old Beijing resident who requested to be identified by her surname Du, told Reuters.

Analysts fear China will pay a price for letting the virus rip through a population that lacks "herd immunity", after long periods of enforced isolation under lockdown, and has low vaccination rates among the elderly.

That has dented prospects for near-term growth, even if the opening up should eventually revive China's battered economy.

JPMorgan on Friday cut its forecast for China's 2022 growth to 2.8%, which is well below the country's official target of 5.5% and would mark one of its worst performances in almost half a century.

China is bracing for "a transitional pain period", analysts at the bank said, adding they expected infections to spike after the Lunar New Year before the economy starts to recover in mid-2023.

China's top state planning body, the National Development and Reform Commission, said "arduous efforts" are needed to sustain the recovery in growth due to an adverse external environment and the global economy's loss of momentum.

China's yuan firmed on Friday as traders remained optimistic that more measures to support the economy would emerge from the conference.

Reporting by Kevin Yao, Bernard Orr and Albee Zhang in Beijing, Brenda Goh and Jing Wang in Shanghai, Farah Master in Hong Kong, Stella Qiu and Kirsty Needham in Sydney and Karin Strohecker in London; Writing by John Geddie and Greg Torode; Editing by Simon Cameron-Moore, Jacqueline Wong, Nick Macfie and Tomasz Janowski

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