By Agence France-Presse

China’s communist rulers avoided setting an annual growth target for the first time in decades Friday, as they struggle to deal with the “immense” economic challenges caused by the coronavirus pandemic.

A469189F 501E 4BEB 89EE BE0986C784A3 - No annual growth target for virus-hit China, a first in years

Chinese Premier Li Keqiang told officials at all levels to ‘tighten their belts’ (AFP / Leo RAMIREZ / MANILA BULLETIN)

Analysts say the move points to China missing its key political goal of doubling gross domestic product from 2010 levels, a blow to the ruling party’s pledge to provide prosperity in exchange for unquestioned political power.

The government usually sets economic growth targets that it regularly exceeds.

But this year, given “great uncertainty” caused by the pandemic, Beijing will not set a target but “give priority to stabilising employment and ensuring living standards”, Premier Li Keqiang told the opening of the National People’s Congress.

Before the pandemic, Beijing was widely expected to announce a growth target of around six percent this year.

But with the COVID-19 shock causing economic growth to shrink 6.8 percent in the first quarter, such a target was seen as no longer feasible.

Apart from raising its budget deficit target this year, China will issue another one trillion yuan ($140 billion) of government bonds for COVID-19 control, Li said, calling these “extraordinary measures for an unusual time”.

The added funds will be transferred to local governments, to be primarily used for ensuring employment, meeting basic living needs, and protecting market entities.

Li also said governments at all levels should “tighten their belts”, and that all types of surplus, idle and carryover funds will be withdrawn and re-allocated, to be put to better use.

Beijing will also issue 3.75 trillion yuan ($526 billion) in special local government bonds this year, in part to boost infrastructure spending in the virus-hit economy.

It will make further tax and fee cuts as well to help firms.

China has said it will tap its massive domestic consumer market to support the economy after external demand collapsed.

But the official urban unemployment rate rose to six percent last month, with analysts saying the real figure could be even higher.

Li said the government aims to ensure the urban unemployment rate remains around this figure, through the creation of over nine million new jobs.

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