The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The last time China’s economy was growing this slowly, ‘Home Alone’ was in theaters

Wang Baoan, director of the National Bureau of Statistics, speaks to reporters during a press conference announcing China's GDP and economic data in Beijing on Jan. 19, 2016. (EPA)

The year was 1990. The Soviet Union existed. George H.W. Bush was president. And "Home Alone" was a box office hit.

It was also the last time China's economy grew as slowly as it did last year.

Chinese officials on Tuesday morning served up a fresh batch of statistics, including GDP growth for 2015: 6.9 percent.  The figure was broadly in line with predictions, but came in just short of the government's forecast of 7 percent.  By comparison, China's GDP grew 7.3 percent in 2014.

China's Shanghai Composite gained 3.2 percent and Hong Kong's Hang Seng index closed up 2 percent on the news. European markets also opened up.

However, the 6.9 percent figure was greeted with skepticism from analysts who question the accuracy of China's data, believing the government bolsters figures to make the economy look stronger than it is. "The continued stability of the official GDP figures will do little to assuage concerns over their credibility," wrote Julian Evans-Pritchard, China economist for Capital  Economics.

"That said, we still think concerns about China’s outlook are overdone and that the recent market volatility has been driven more by sentiment than by economic fundamentals."

In other words: The statistics are rubbish and the economy is slowing, but things are probably — probably — not as bad as you think.

Questions about the reliability of Chinese data, combined with wild market swings has done much to sour global sentiment on China. But whether or not China is growing at 6.9 percent, or 4, 5, 6 percent, as some analysts guess, what's clear — and most broadly significant — is that China's decades-long growth spurt is petering out.

China's rulers know this. They know they must stop pouring money into heavy industry, infrastructure investment and the property market and shift to services, consumer spending and tech. They know this will lead to slower growth — the "new normal" they call it.

That transition won't be easy, as recent economic missteps have shown. Though China's stock market is not closely linked to its real economy, the government's handling of recent stock woes has rightly raised questions about economic policy making at the highest levels.

On Tuesday, Chinese officials sought to ease those worries, defending their statistics as "valid and reliable.” In a press release, the statistic agency said slower growth reflected a "complicated international  environment and increasing downward pressure on the economy," but was in line with plans for "moderate and sound development."

Their prediction for 2016: more of the same.

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