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In this April 13, 2020, file photo, a worker assembles gearboxes at the Kofon factory in Huanggang in central China's Hubei province. China’s economy rebounded from a painful contraction to grow by 3.2% over a year earlier in the latest quarter as anti-virus lockdowns were lifted and factories and stores reopened. (AP Photo/Ng Han Guan, File)

China becomes first economy to grow since virus pandemic

In this April 13, 2020, file photo, a worker assembles gearboxes at the Kofon factory in Huanggang in central China's Hubei province. China’s economy rebounded from a painful contraction to grow by 3.2% over a year earlier in the latest quarter as anti-virus lockdowns were lifted and factories and stores reopened. (AP Photo/Ng Han Guan, File)

China became the first major economy to grow since the start of the coronavirus pandemic, recording an unexpectedly strong 3.2 per cent expansion in the latest quarter after anti-virus lockdowns were lifted and factories and stores reopened.

A Chinese epidemic control worker wears a protective suit and mask while performing a nucleic acid test for COVID-19 on a man who has had contact with the Xinfadi Wholesale Market or someone who has, at a testing center on June 16, 2020 in Beijing, China. (Photo: Bloomberg)

Growth reported Thursday for the three months ending in June was a dramatic improvement over the previous quarter’s 6.8% contraction —China’s worst performance since at least the mid-1960s. But it still was the weakest positive figure since China started reporting quarterly growth in the early 1990s.

China, where the coronavirus pandemic began in December, was the first economy to shut down and the first to start the drawn-out process of recovery in March after the ruling Communist Party declared the disease under control.

“The national economy shifted from slowing down to rising in the first half of 2020,” the National Bureau of Statistics said in a statement.

Pedestrians walk with umbrellas past stores in Wuhan, China on April 30.
(Photo: Qilai Shen/Bloomberg)

Asian financial markets fell despite the show of strength by the region’s biggest economy as investor enthusiasm following announcements about research into a possible coronavirus vaccine receded.

China’s market benchmark, the Shanghai Composite Index, was down 1.4% at midday. In Tokyo, the Nikkei 225 lost 0.7%. Hong Kong’s Hang Seng declined 1.4% and the Kospi in South Korea fell 0.8%.

Economists say China is likely to recover faster than some other major economies due to the ruling Communist Party’s decision to impose the most intensive anti-disease measures in history. Those cut off most access to cities with a total of 60 million people and suspended trade and travel — steps later imitated by some Asian and European governments as the virus spread.

Manufacturing and some other industries are almost back to normal. But consumer spending is weak due to fear of possible job losses. Cinemas and some other businesses still are closed and restrictions on travel stay in place.

People wearing protective masks walk at Hong Kong Station of MTR in Hong Kong, China, on Tuesday, Feb.11, 2020. Photographer: Paul Yeung/Bloomberg

The International Monetary Fund is forecasting China’s growth at one per cent this year. That would be the weakest since the 1960s but better than the Fund’s outlook for an eight per cent contraction in US output and a 4.9% decline for the world.

Private sector analysts say as much as 30% of China’s urban workforce, or as many as 130 million people, may have lost their jobs at least temporarily. They say as many as 25 million jobs might be lost for good this year.

The ruling party promised in May to spend $280 billion on meeting goals including creating nine million new jobs. But it has avoided joining the United States and Japan in rolling out relief packages of $1 trillion or more due to concern about adding to already high Chinese debt.

China has reported 4,634 coronavirus deaths and 83,611 cases. No domestically transmitted cases have been reported since an outbreak in Beijing that infected more than 330 people before it faded early this month.

June exports grew by an unexpectedly strong 0.4% but still are off 3% for the first half of the year. Imports rose three per cent — including a 10.6% jump in purchases of US goods despite a tariff war — but are down 3.3% so far this year.

Forecasters warn exporters are likely to face another decline in demand as sales of masks and other medical supplies taper off and US and European retailers cancel orders.

–Associated Press