After anti-virus regulations that shut down Shanghai and other industrial centres began to loosen in May, China’s trade growth returned. Exports increased 16.9% year over year to USD 308.3 billion, up from 3.7 percent rise in April, according to a customs agency statement released on Thursday. Imports increased by 4.1 percent to USD 229.5 billion, up from 0.7 percent the previous month.
Some expect activity to shrink in the quarter ending in June before a gradual recovery begins. Most factories, shops, and other businesses in Shanghai, Beijing, and other cities have been allowed to reopen but are expected to need weeks or months to return to normal activity levels. “Exports showed considerable resilience in May despite the impact of the protracted lockdown in Shanghai,” said Rajiv Biswas of S and P Global Market Intelligence in a report.
China’s trade has been dampened this year by weak export demand and curbs imposed to fight outbreaks in Shanghai, the site of the world’s busiest port, and other cities. Consumer demand for imports was crushed by rules that confined millions of families to their homes. Forecasters have cut estimates for China’s economic growth to as low as two percent this year due to the Shanghai shutdown, well below the ruling Communist Party’s target of 5.5 percent.
“The outlook for the second half of 2022 is for a stronger rebound in imports as domestic demand recovers.” China’s politically sensitive global trade surplus widened by 82.3 percent over a year earlier to USD 78.8 billion. That was among the highest monthly trade gaps but below December’s record USD 94.4 billion.
Import figures got a boost from higher global prices for oil and other commodities while the volume of foreign goods bought grew less strongly. Authorities responded to complaints about the soaring cost of “zero-COVID” by switching to a more targeted approach of isolating buildings or neighborhoods with cases instead of cities. But some areas covered by restrictions that have closed shops, factories, and offices for weeks at a time have millions of inhabitants.
China’s “zero-COVID” strategy that confined Shanghai’s 25 million people to their homes starting in late March helped to keep case numbers low but disrupted manufacturing and trade and crushed consumer demand. The Port of Shanghai says the number of cargo containers handled each day returned to 95 percent of normal by late May. However, a backlog of tens of thousands of containers is likely to cause delays that will be felt around the world.
China’s economy grew by a weak 4.8 percent over a year earlier in the quarter ending in March. That was an improvement over the 4 percent rate in the final three months of 2021, but the current quarter’s economic indicators in the current quarter are dismal. Auto sales in April fell by almost half from a year earlier. Retail spending was off by a worse-than-forecast 11 percent.
The ruling party is trying to shore up growth with tax refunds to entrepreneurs, easier credit, and spending on building public works. The World Bank warned this week that the “old playbook” policies might delay efforts to encourage growth based on consumption instead of debt-fuelled investment. High debts “store up further risks down the line,” the bank’s chief China economist, Ibrahim Chowdhury, said in a statement.
As Shanghai reopens, many factories plan to split workforces into two groups, with only one on the job at any time, to limit disruptions if there are more outbreaks and quarantines, according to foreign business groups. “It will be months at least, and possibly years, before all the people who were working get back to work,” Carl B. Weinberg of High-Frequency Economics said in a report this week.
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