WRAPUP 3-Xi and China’s top leadership to hold key economic meeting as COVID ramps up

(Rephrases with economic meeting confirmation, adds oil demand and spread details)

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WHO issues rare warning

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Infections on the rise in the capital and other cities

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Key economic meeting planned to finalize growth targets

By Julie Zhu and Liz Lee

HONG KONG/BEIJING, Dec 14 (Reuters) –

Chinese President Xi Jinping, his ruling Politburo and top government officials are set to meet over the next two days to plot a recovery for China’s battered economy just as the nation faces a surge in COVID-19 infections.

The major annual economic policy conference takes place as virus infections surge in the capital Beijing a week after the leadership abandoned its tough “zero-COVID” controls.

The policy had been championed by Xi, but last month it sparked more

large protests

during his 10-year presidency.

The closed-door annual central economic work conference will take place Thursday through Friday, according to three sources with direct knowledge of the matter.

Insiders and business analysts are watching closely, saying leadership likely will

trace further stimulus steps

and discuss growth goals.

Global investors, yes

taken aback

since the U-turn of virus policy, they now find themselves flying blindly into a chaotic post-pandemic transition, without adequate data to track the rise in infections and potential threats to the economy over the coming months.

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

State media reported on Tuesday that about 50 people are critically or seriously ill in hospitals in Beijing, while infections are also on the rise in the cities of Wuhan and Chengdu, as well as Hebei province, according to

medical staff

social media posts and state press reports.

But exact case numbers have become impossible to track due to reduced testing and the National Health Commission (NHC) said from Wednesday it would no longer report new asymptomatic COVID-19 infections as it was difficult to accurately calculate the total count. breaking with a practice it has held for most of the last three years.

The Chinese yuan, on track for its worst year since 1994 when China unified its official and market exchange rates, eased against the dollar on Wednesday with traders also citing concerns about a fresh wave of infections.

The surge in the number of cases comes a week after Chinese authorities overturned previously expanded rules on testing and quarantine, coming in line with a world that has largely reopened three years after the emergence of COVID.

The euphoria that has met with these changes has quickly faded amid growing signs that China may pay a price to protect a population lacking “herd immunity” and with low vaccination rates among the elderly.

‘PRICE WE PAY’

The World Health Organization has warned of “very difficult” times, highlighting wider fears of a surge in infections in a population of 1.4 billion.

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

Official counts of COVID cases in China have dropped in recent weeks, but this has coincided with a drop in testing and is increasingly at odds with the situation on the ground.

China has reported no COVID-related deaths since Dec. 3, before the country began easing curbs.

In the three years since the outbreak of the pandemic 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 monitor 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 more than 47,000 fever clinics as of Wednesday.

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

“It is now essential to improve our awareness in self-protection. I think now the risk depends on individuals,” he added, requesting anonymity.

In Shanghai, China’s most populous city, at least seven schools said they would halt in-person teaching due to COVID cases, with classes online, according to parents and alerts seen by Reuters.

Infections are expected to spread across the country in the coming weeks as some people who have not been able to travel return to their home towns and villages.

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

The mass movement of people will peak during the Lunar New Year holiday starting on Jan. 22, following domestic travel restrictions for the previous three years.

Already road and air traffic in China, the world’s second-largest oil consumer, has rebounded sharply after the easing, boosting the outlook for fuel demand and supporting crude prices.

China’s top health officials have downplayed the threat of the disease and promoted the idea of ​​self-care in recent weeks, a dramatic reversal from previous messages that the virus needed to be stamped out.

The National Health Commission said it would roll out the second booster of the COVID-19 vaccine for high-risk groups and older adults over the age of 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; Screenplay by John Geddie and Greg Torode; Editing by Simon Cameron-Moore and Raju Gopalakrishnan)

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