SHANGHAI – Lavish government spending and bank lending helped China's growth rate accelerate to an 8.9 percent pace in the third quarter, far outstripping expansions elsewhere around the globe and raising questions about whether the rapid rebound can be sustained.
China also announced Thursday that industrial production and investment spending are growing at a faster pace. That seemingly good news unsettled local stock investors, however, on fears Beijing may need to rein in its stimulus policies to avoid asset bubbles and inflation.
Companies, central bankers and political leaders around the world are increasingly counting on growing demand from Chinese producers and consumers to offset sluggish home markets. Corporations from Coke to Caterpillar are seeing their strongest sales in Asia, particularly China. So far, the growth is coming mostly from government-backed spending on construction and other projects, but demand from China's traditionally frugal, still relatively poor consumers is also rising.
The world's third-largest economy began to falter in late 2008 as exports plunged and thousands of factories shut down, throwing millions out of jobs. China fought back with a $586 billion stimulus plan involving massive spending and bank lending for construction of infrastructure such as railways and roads to pump up the domestic economy.
Growth fell to a low of 6.1 percent in the first quarter, but rebounded to 7.9 percent in the second quarter, hitting 8.9 percent in the third quarter compared with a year earlier. That puts the economy on track to at least meet the official target of an 8 percent expansion for 2009.
With China in the forefront, "Asia appears to be leading the global recovery," Federal Reserve chairman Ben Bernanke said earlier this week. "Recent data from the region suggest that a strong rebound is, in fact, under way."
Yet sustaining the upswing beyond a few quarters hinges on stronger demand for exports from important markets such as the U.S., Europe and Japan which are emerging only slowly from the worst global recession since World War II.
"We'll see strong growth from China for the next six months, possibly another year," said Standard Chartered Bank economist Stephen Green. "The problem is what happens after another year and a half. What will be the growth driver then?" he said.
Signaling another set of concerns, China's top leaders said Wednesday that policies will increasingly focus on countering inflation — a problem that had seemed below the horizon with consumer prices down 1.1 percent so far this year. They also resolved to clamp down on waste, industrial overcapacity and other imbalances brought on by the rapid resurgence in growth.
Still, the announcement that growth continued to accelerate in the third quarter contained a hint of jubilation over Beijing's progress in mending damage from the global economic crisis.
"We can say we have made obvious and remarkable achievements in our economic growth," National Statistics Bureau spokesman Li Xiaochao told reporters in Beijing.
"We have quickly reversed the economic slowdown. The momentum of the recovery is solid and overall, our economic performance is showing signs of improvement," Li said.
Industrial output rose 8.7 percent in the first three quarters of the year, and 12.4 percent in July-September — signaling accelerating demand for steel and other industrial goods.
While China's imports still fall far short of its exports, its recovery is playing a stabilizing role for other, harder-hit economies, said David Cohen, director of Asian economic forecasting for the consultancy Action Economics in Singapore.
"The Chinese are the biggest customers for many countries around the world," he said. "They matter like never before."
Surging purchases of coal, iron ore and other minerals have aided global miners BHP Billiton and Rio Tinto.
Automakers such as Ford Motor Co. and General Motors Co. are increasingly reliant on China with its auto market surging ahead of the U.S. to become the world's biggest this year.
Caterpillar Inc., which makes heavy equipment, raised its earnings forecast for the year because of performance in Asia, its best-performing region. Deliveries of its products in China were higher than they had ever been for the third quarter. Coca-Cola Co. plans a $2 billion investment along with its bottlers in China in the next three years to meet the growing popularity of fizzy drinks.
Even as China's rapid recovery sees it loom ever larger for companies in the West, it is grappling with problems that could undermine that progress.
Heavy reliance on spending on public works and other investments has raised worries that wasteful and redundant outlays on new factories and unneeded construction will worsen gluts, while inviting financial problems as projects fail to pay off.
Record bank lending has also helped spur potentially unhealthy run-ups in property and share prices. On Wednesday, top bank regulator Liu Mingkang ordered banks to show more caution in lending in coming months.
The government this week also outlined fresh curbs on investments in steelmaking and other industries plagued by massive overcapacity.
China's planners are seeking to widen the sources of growth beyond exports and investment in state-dominated industries by channeling spending to areas of the economy expected to spur more consumer spending and improve productivity.
While China's domestic consumption remains low compared with other major economies, it is rising. Retail sales grew 15.1 percent in the first three quarters, the statistics bureau said. Housing sales have been rising and new housing starts are also picking up.
"I never trusted what the economists were saying on TV about the recovery until our orders doubled last month. Now I'm convinced," said Zhang Yizheng, general manager of Shanghai Rising, a trading company that deals in plastic pipes used mainly in vehicles.
"Our orders from car makers, electric equipment makers and construction companies tell me that their business is returning to normal, too."