China looks to prop up consumer spending in key areas such as e-commerce, car industry

China's consumer spending was down 4 per cent in 2020. PHOTO: AFP

BEIJING - China's top economic planning agency said on Monday (March 8) it was looking to drive domestic consumption through several key areas, including e-commerce and the automotive industry.

Speaking on the sidelines of China's annual parliamentary season, officials at the National Development and Reform Commission (NDRC) said they are planning to create a more dynamic economy with an increased focus on technological spending.

The country is targeting a gross domestic product (GDP) growth of over 6 per cent this year, Premier Li Keqiang announced last week.

The world's second-largest economy wants to continue its rebound from last year - amid a global pandemic, China was the only major economy in the world with a positive GDP.

But most of this was driven by exports, with much of the world's medical equipment and consumer electronics manufactured in China.

In a bid to drive domestic economic growth beyond government spending through massive infrastructure projects, officials have been trying to drive up what they see as lethargic domestic consumption.

Last year, income per capita was up 2.1 per cent, but this was not reflected in consumer spending, which was down 4 per cent.

"We must do a good job in promoting household consumption under the conditions of normalised epidemic prevention and control," said Mr Ning Jize, an NDRC vice-director.

While Beijing has been pushing for citizens to spend more, it has left consumer policymaking to provincial and municipal governments, who have introduced a raft of measures, like consumption vouchers, that were met with lukewarm response.

This year, there will be a focus on encouraging locals to spend more on daily commodities, services, and even health and automobiles.

This will also be expanded to e-commerce and "green consumption", or eco-friendly spending, Mr Ning said without going into details.

China is looking to prop up its automobile industry, whose development has been sputtering in recent years except in one area: electric vehicles.

"It is necessary to carry out the promotion of autos to the countryside and trade-in of old automobiles, and guide some places and cities to continue to liberalise the purchase restriction policy of new energy vehicles," Mr Ning said.

Last year, China made 145 million electric vehicles (EV), an increase of nearly 20 per cent from the year before. It is already the largest commercial EV market in the world, and is likely to become the world's largest market for private passenger EVs in the coming months.

As China races towards its goal of becoming a science and technological superpower, there is an emphasis on increasing spending on basic research from last year's 2.4 per cent of GDP, or about 2.4 trillion yuan (S$500 billion), to at least 8 per cent of GDP over the next five years.

China is also likely to set national annual growth goals over the next half decade, the period covered by the latest economic plan, because predicting growth for a 12-month period is easier.

"By not setting a specific and quantitative (five-year) growth target, we will be more proactive, active and at ease in coping with all sorts of risks, which is conducive to boosting the flexibility of our development," said Mr Hu Zucai, another vice-director of the NDRC, adding that this would help agencies to focus on the quality of growth, rather than just meeting a numerical target.

"We are confident that GDP will maintain a certain level (over the next five years)," he said.

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