TAIPEI, Taiwan — A year ago, the coronavirus began spreading rapidly in China. Today, China’s economy is bouncing back hard, and expanding even faster than it did before the pandemic.
Economic data published Monday showed China logged 2.3 percent growth for 2020, becoming the only major economy that grew during a year that exacted a generational toll on swaths of the world. As other major nations and geopolitical competitors, from the United States to Europe to India to Japan, struggle to beat back a winter wave, China’s containment success has buoyed its economy and the ruling Communist Party’s claims to global leadership in the post-pandemic world.
In a sign of how quickly China has managed a turnaround, the National Statistics Bureau said that gross domestic product rose 6.5 percent during the fourth quarter of 2020, exceeding the 6 percent pace at the end of 2019, before the coronavirus took hold.
As President-elect Biden enters office this week, he’ll be confronted with a China that does not seem at all diminished in economic health or international stature. Xi Jinping, the Chinese leader, recently struck a bullish tone during his New Year’s Eve address, when he told his countrymen he was “proud of his great motherland” and the sacrifice and unity its people displayed to quickly beat back the coronavirus through lockdown measures and an all-hands mobilization of medical and manufacturing workers.
In recent weeks, Chinese state media and its globe-trotting foreign minister, Wang Yi, have told world leaders from Myanmar to the European Union, as well as global investors, that China’s fast recovery could lift the rest of the world. Under Xi’s leadership and through his diplomacy via online video calls, Wang claimed earlier this month, China “has brought hope for the world economy to step out of the doldrums.”
“China’s economy continues to power ahead with remarkable momentum, leaving other major economies, most of which are still struggling to register some semblance of growth, in the dust,” said Eswar Prasad, a professor at Cornell University and former China director for the International Monetary Fund. “With its outstanding growth performance, China has cemented its position as the primary driver of what has so far been a dismal global economic recovery.”
Last week, Chinese officials said exports reached a new all-time high of $2.6 trillion in 2020. Despite a bitter trade war with President Trump, China’s trade surplus with the United States reached a record of $316.9 billion for the year.
Employment was also picking up as the economy created 11.86 million jobs during the year, the statistics bureau said.
China’s economy only dipped into negative territory once, during the first quarter of 2020, when authorities locked down Hubei Province and its capital, Wuhan, and enforced softer lockdown measures in cities around the country.
The Chinese Academy of Social Sciences predicted this month that China could grow 7.8 percent in 2021 as it fully bounced back, a whopping rate reminiscent of China’s explosive growth in past decades. But it’s not guaranteed China can continue its late-2020 surge if coronavirus cases take hold again.
So far, the Chinese government is trying its best to prevent a resurgence and reinforced a lockdown over about 20 million residents in northern China, including several large cities near Beijing, following several small outbreaks.
Although the tough measures will help prevent new cases from spiraling out of control, they may crimp economic activity in industries like travel in the short term.
Chinese officials have canceled public events, large gatherings like weddings, and unfurled street signs and publicity campaigns urging workers not to travel home during the Lunar New Year period, when hundreds of millions of citizens usually crisscross the country to visit family.
In northern Hebei Province, which surrounds Beijing, authorities have reported almost 700 cases since the beginning of January, in the worst flare-up since last spring.