China's first quarter growth beats expectations at 6.9%

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An ethnic minority man poses for a selfie on Tiananmen Square outside the Great Hall of the People ahead of the opening session of the National People's Congress in Beijing, 5 MarchImage source, Reuters

China's economy grew by 6.9% in the first quarter of 2017, according to official figures.

The growth rate, which compares expansion with the same three months in the previous year, was slightly higher than many economists had forecast.

State-led infrastructure spending and demand for new property helped drive the world's second-largest economy.

Last month China cut its growth target for this year to 6.5% from 6.7% in 2016.

China's National Bureau of Statistics said the economy maintained momentum from the second half of last year, "getting off to a good start in 2017 and laying a solid foundation for accomplishing the whole-year growth target".

Another set of data also suggests a rise in domestic consumption. February retail sales jumped 10.9% from the previous year.

Image source, Getty Images

Analysis: Karishma Vaswani, Asia Business Correspondent

While we should always remain sceptical of the Chinese government's GDP data, these figures suggest that growth is stabilising.

However, they also demonstrate that Beijing is relying on the same old tricks to drive its economy.

Government spending on infrastructure, a booming property market and taking on debt were all things China's leadership has pledged to move away from in the transition towards a new, modern, open economy.

Yet all three factors are still evident in this data, suggesting that the "old" model of growth that relies so much on the state is alive and well.

Debt is a particular concern. China's total and private debt is now worth more than 250% of GDP and looks set to grow. Analysts are divided about just how equipped China is to handle that much debt, but even the government has said the situation is not ideal and must be addressed.

The question is just how much political appetite there will be to accept a less-than-glamorous growth rate in a year when President Xi Jinping has arguably his most important party congress coming up.

Property slowdown?

China is a key driver of the global economy and its performance is closely watched by investors around the world. Its 2016 growth was its slowest in 26 years.

Hidenobu Tokuda of the Mizuho Research Institute in Tokyo said China should be trying to slow its growth rate in the long term, though "uncertainties remain high" about how that slowdown would happen.

Meanwhile Brian Jackson of IHS Global Insight predicted both industrial output and the property sector would slow.

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