BEIJING — China’s economy slowed for the seventh consecutive quarter between July and September, with the country growing at just 7.4 percent year-on-year, the slowest rate since the onset of the global economic crisis in early 2009, according to official estimates released Thursday.
The new growth figures, largely in line with previous official and outside estimates, come at a delicate time here, with China just three weeks away from a Communist Party Congress to install a new leadership team for the first time in a decade.
Always at sensitive periods, Chinese authorities are on alert for any signs of social unrest — spurred by joblessness or rising prices — that could mar their carefully orchestrated proceedings.
But so far, unlike the 2009 slowdown, there were no signs of growing unemployment or migrant workers unable to find jobs and returning to the countryside, said Sheng Laiyun, a spokesman for the National Bureau of Statistics, which released the latest economic figures.
“The return home of mass numbers of migrants, like happened in 2009, didn’t happen this time,” Sheng said. He said China’s economic growth remained strong, despite global headwinds, and the country was still producing enough jobs. Retail sales were up 14.2 percent in September from the previous year, indicating consumers are still spending, factory output was up 9.2 percent and exports up 9.9 percent — all slight upticks from August, giving economists hope that the worst had passed.
Also, inflation remains a low 1.9 percent, meaning that fears that government stimulus measures might create an inflationary spiral have not been realized.
To avoid a “hard landing,” China’s policymakers have cut interest rates twice over the summer, and eased bank deposit holding rules, as a way to push lending.
But officials have far has avoided any kind of larger, long-term stimulus like the massive $586 billion spending program they embarked on during the 2008-09 recession, that built new highways, airports, bridges and high-speed rail lines, but also left large local government debt and fueled rising prices.
The latest economic statistics came as outgoing Prime Minister Wen Jiabao was quoted in the official media Thursday saying that the country’s economic growth had begun to stabilize but would face “considerable challenges” in the final quarter of this year because of the continued global slowdown.
Wen said he was confident the country would reach its annual growth target of 7.5 percent, once the final quarter statistics are compiled. Xinhua, the official state-run news agency, said Wen was touring several Chinese cities speaking with businessmen and economists.
So far this year, according to the new statistics, China grew at 8.1 percent in the first quarter, 7.6 in the second, and 7.4 percent in the third, for an annual average rate of about 7.7 percent. Those rates would be enviable in recession-weary Europe, or in the U.S. where growth has stalled at less than 2 percent this year. But for most of the last three decades, China has enjoyed double-digit growth of 10 percent or higher, as the country implemented economic reform policies and pulled millions of people out of poverty.
Also, the U.S. and Europe had been looking to China and other mid-sized developing economies like Brazil to provide the engine that might drive global growth while the West continues with high joblessness and weak growth prospects.