BEIJING • Chinese President Xi Jinping warned top officials last week that efforts to contain the new coronavirus had gone too far, threatening the country's economy, sources told Reuters, days before Beijing rolled out measures to soften the blow.
With growth at its slowest in nearly three decades, China's leaders seem eager to strike a balance between protecting an already slowing economy and stamping out the epidemic that has killed 1,018 people and infected 43,138.
After reviewing reports on the outbreak from the National Development and Reform Commission (NDRC) and other economic departments, Mr Xi told local officials during a Feb 3 meeting of the Politburo's Standing Committee that some of the actions taken to contain the virus were harming the economy, said two people familiar with the meeting who declined to be named.
He urged them to refrain from "more restrictive measures", the two sources said.
The local authorities outside the central city of Wuhan - where the virus is thought to have first taken hold - have shut down schools and factories, sealed off roads and railways, banned public events and even locked down residential compounds.
Mr Xi said some of those steps had not been practical and had sown fear among the public, the sources said.
The official Xinhua news agency, reporting on the Politburo meeting on Feb 3, called the coronavirus outbreak "a major test of China's system and capacity for governance".
"Party committees and governments of all levels were urged to achieve the targets of economic and social development this year," it added without details.
Since the meeting, the central bank has vowed to step up support for the economy and prepared policy tools to offset the damage. Its vice-governor Pan Gongsheng said last Friday: "In the context of the epidemic and the downward pressure on the economy, it is more important to maintain economic growth."
The NDRC said at a weekend briefing that it was urging companies and factories to resume work, especially in key industries such as food and pharmaceuticals.
On Monday, Zhejiang province, an economic powerhouse in eastern China, ordered the local authorities not to overreact by restricting everyday movement or shutting down "shops of chain stores and convenience stores that sell daily necessities such as vegetables, cooking oil as well as meat, eggs and dairy products", according to a government release.
China has also unveiled new tax policies as it tries to reduce the burden on hard-hit industries. Reuters reported this month that Chinese policymakers are preparing measures, including more fiscal spending and interest rate cuts, amid expectations that the outbreak will devastate first-quarter growth.
China's death toll from the coronavirus jumped yesterday after hard-hit Hubei province reported 103 new deaths. But the number of new confirmed cases on Monday was 2,478, down from 3,062 the previous day, bringing the total to over 42,000.
The country's renowned epidemiologist Zhong Nanshan is optimistic that the outbreak will soon slow, with the number of new cases already declining in some places.
The expert, who won fame for fighting the severe acute respiratory syndrome (Sars) in 2003, said the outbreak should hit a peak in the middle of or late this month.
"I hope this outbreak may be over in something like April," he said.