WRAPUP 3-Xi and top Chinese leaders hold major economic meeting as COVID spikes

(Reshuffles with economic meeting confirmation, adds oil demand and details on infection spread)

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The WHO is issuing a rare warning

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Infections are on the rise in the capital and other cities

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Major economic meeting is expected to finalize growth targets

By Julie Zhu and Liz Lee

HONG KONG/BEIJING, Dec 14 (Reuters) –

Chinese President Xi Jinping, his ruling Politburo and senior government officials will meet over the next two days to plot a recovery for China’s battered economy, just as the country faces a surge in COVID-19 infections.

The main annual economic policy conference is taking place as virus infections in the capital Beijing peaked a week after the exit from strict “zero COVID” controls.

The policy was championed by Xi, but last month led to most

extensive protests

under his 10-year presidency.

The annual Central Economic Working Conference takes place behind closed doors from Thursday to Friday, three sources with direct knowledge say.

Policy insiders and business analysts are watching closely and say leadership probably would

map out further stimulation steps

and growth goals.

Global investors, al

caught off guard

with the turnaround in virus policy, they are now flying blindly into a chaotic post-pandemic transition, without the right data to track rising infections and potential threats to the economy in the coming months.

Economists estimate China’s growth has slowed to about 3% this year, well below the official target of about 5.5%, one of China’s worst performances in nearly half a century.

State media reported late Tuesday that some 50 people are critically or seriously ill in Beijing hospitals, while infections are also rising in the cities of Wuhan and Chengdu, as well as Hebei province, according to

medical staff

social media posts and state press releases.

But the exact number of cases is impossible to track due to reduced testing, and the National Health Commission (NHC) said as of Wednesday it would no longer report new asymptomatic COVID-19 infections, saying it was difficult to accurately count the total number. practice it has had for most of the past three years.

The Chinese yuan, heading for its worst year since 1994 when China unified official and market exchange rates, fell against the dollar on Wednesday, with traders also expressing concerns about another wave of infections.

The increase in cases comes a week after Chinese authorities previously overturned extensive testing and quarantine rules, in line with a world that has largely reopened three years after the emergence of COVID.

The elation that accompanied those changes has quickly faded amid growing signs that China may be paying a price for protecting a population that lacks “herd immunity” and low vaccination rates among the elderly.

‘PRICE WE PAY’

The World Health Organization warned of “very tough” times ahead, highlighting broader fears of a wave of infections among a population of 1.4 billion.

“It’s always very difficult for any country to get out of a situation where you’ve had very, very tight controls,” WHO spokesman Margaret Harris said in Geneva, adding that China was facing a “very tough and difficult time”.

The official number of COVID cases in China has been on a downward trend in recent weeks, but that has coincided with a drop in testing and is increasingly at odds with the situation on the ground.

China has not reported any COVID-related deaths since Dec. 3, before the country began loosening curbs.

In the three years since the outbreak of the pandemic in the central Chinese city of Wuhan, China has reported just 5,235 COVID-related deaths – a small proportion of the population and extremely low by global standards.

Long queues outside fever clinics, buildings next to hospitals screening for infectious diseases in mainland China, have been a common sight in Beijing and other cities in recent days. National health authorities said they have opened more than 47,000 fever clinics as of Wednesday.

“This is the price we pay for being freer,” a 26-year-old nicknamed Liu who works in marketing told Reuters on the streets of the capital.

“Now it is essential that we improve our self-protection awareness. I think the risk now depends on individuals,” she added, asking for anonymity.

In Shanghai, China’s most populous city, at least seven schools have said they will stop in-person teaching due to COVID cases, with classes moving online, according to parents and notices seen by Reuters.

The infections are expected to spread across the country in the coming weeks as some people who have been unable to travel return to their own towns and villages.

According to state media reports on Wednesday, daily traffic flows at the main railway station in Hangzhou’s technical center had more than doubled to 128,000 as youths went home.

The mass movement of people will peak during the Lunar New Year holiday starting January 22 after restrictions on domestic travel for the past three years.

Road and air traffic in China, the world’s second largest oil consumer, has already rebounded strongly following the easing, improving the outlook for fuel demand and supporting crude oil prices.

Top Chinese health officials have downplayed the threat of the disease and pushed forward the idea of ​​self-care in recent weeks, a dramatic reversal from previous reports that the virus needed to be eliminated.

The National Health Commission said it would roll out the second COVID-19 vaccine booster injections for high-risk groups and the elderly over the age of 60. (Reporting by Bernard Orr and Liz Lee in Beijing and Brenda Goh, Casey Hall, Winni Zhou, David Stanway and Shen Yiming in Shanghai; Additional reporting by Xu Jing in Beijing; Written by John Geddie and Greg Torode; Edited by Simon Cameron-Moore and Raju Gopalakrishnan)

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