China says its economy grew by 8.1 per cent in the first three months of 2012, its slowest pace in nearly three years, as domestic demand fell and Europe's woes curbed business activity.
Gross domestic product grew at its slowest pace since the second quarter of 2009 in the three months to the end of March, the National Bureau of Statistics (NBS) said on Friday.
The figure marked the fifth consecutive quarterly slowdown for the world's second-largest economy, and NBS spokesman Sheng Laiyun said there was now "enormous" pressure on exports.
"The global situation in the first quarter is complex ... the pressure on exports growth is enormous," he told reporters.
Output from China's millions of factories and workshops rose 11.6 per cent in the first three months of this year, compared with growth of 15.7 per cent a year earlier.
The figure is likely to fuel concerns about China's vast manufacturing sector, which has been hurt by falling demand for Chinese products in crisis-hit Europe.
China's annual growth slowed to 9.2 per cent last year from 10.4 per cent in 2010, as turbulence in Europe and the United States hit the export-driven economy.
Analysts expect growth to rebound in the second half of this year as Europe's economic outlook brightens and China's loosening measures kick in, allowing greater credit access for small businesses.
"Q1 might turn out to be the weakest quarter for China in the current down cycle, as signs of stabilisation have already emerged on both domestic and external demand sides," said Xianfang Ren, economist with IHS Global Insight.
"China could easily overshoot the government's 7.5 per cent growth target to deliver a soft-landing growth rate at over eight per cent this year."
China cut its economic growth target to 7.5 per cent this year, from eight per cent last year, in an official acknowledgment that the export-driven economy is slowing.
Over the past few months Beijing has pledged to "fine-tune" policy to prevent a hard landing for the economy, which could trigger widespread job losses and spark social unrest.
China's central bank in February cut the amount of cash banks must hold in reserve for the second time in three months as policymakers moved to increase lending and boost domestic consumption, and analysts expect further cuts in the coming months.
Retail sales, the main gauge of consumer spending, rose 14.8 per cent in the first three months of 2012.
Urban fixed asset investments, a key measure of government spending on infrastructure, rose 20.9 per cent in the first quarter of 2012 compared with a year earlier.
Beijing has also introduced a string of measures to help its struggling small businesses and pledged to support its export sector.
China's manufacturing activity fell to a four-month low in March according to HSBC, and imports slowed to 5.3 per cent.
However, Beijing is not expected to loosen its grip on the housing sector which has seen prices more than double in many cities.
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