China’s economic growth looks strong — maybe too strong

HONG KONG — The pace of growth in China’s economy accelerated last year for the first time in seven years as exports, construction and consumer spending all climbed strongly.

At least, that’s what the government says.

In reality, the pace of growth in China’s economy is anybody’s guess. Various signals suggest China’s growth did speed up in 2017, which could give the government the room it needs to tackle an accumulation of serious financial, environmental and social problems this year.

But measuring the size and health of the world’s second-largest economy can be difficult at best. Its official figures have become implausibly smooth and steady, even as other countries post results with plenty of peaks and valleys. Officials in far-flung regions are admitting their numbers are wrong. And outside experts have come up with different — and usually weaker — results.

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The National Bureau of Statistics announced Thursday that the economy expanded 6.9 percent last year, up slightly from 6.7 percent in 2016 and breaking a trend of gradual slowing that began in 2011. For the fourth quarter, the bureau reported economic growth of 6.8 percent over a year earlier.

Strength in exports, retail sales and the property market has helped spur growth.

But that growth has come at a high price: rising borrowing that has triggered downgrades of China’s sovereign debt rating by credit-rating agencies; severe pollution of China’s air, water and soil; and persistent social problems associated with the movement to cities of tens of millions of workers, who had little choice but to leave their children in their hometowns.

President Xi Jinping signaled in October that he wanted to address some of these chronic problems and that the country should no longer emphasize maximizing economic growth at almost any cost.

China’s annual growth figures have long been quite steady….

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