Ng Han Guan / AP Photo

China’s economic growth was slowest in 24 years

China’s 7.4 percent growth for 2014 was the slowest for the world’s second-biggest economy since 1990

China’s economic growth grew 7.4 percent in 2014, the National Bureau of Statistics said on Tuesday, undershooting the government's 7.5 percent target and the weakest expansion in 24 years.

The world's second-largest economy held steady at 7.3 percent in the fourth quarter from a year earlier, slightly better than expected but still hovering at its weakest since the global financial crisis, keeping pressure on policymakers to head off a sharper slowdown.

It was the first time since 1999 that the government had missed a yearly growth target for gross domestic product.

President Xi Jinping said last year that the economy has entered a "new normal." But a surprise interest rate cut by policymakers in November indicated they were worried about a politically dangerous spike in job losses.

At a news conference, Ma Jiantang, the director of the National Bureau of Statistics, said that 2014's growth "was within a reasonable range."

While the latest numbers are ahead of growth rates in other major economies, they represent a sharp decline from double-digit growth in previous years and add to pressure on the country's leaders as they try to prevent a sharper slowdown in 2015.

Chinese officials have tried to lower expectations by saying growth below the official target would be acceptable.  

A series of incremental market reforms and modest stimulus measures over the year did little to reverse a slowdown in the property market, and industrial overcapacity.  Slowing investment and erratic exports remain challenges for policymakers this year.

However, if Beijing's goal was to allow a modest slowdown in the name of pushing painful reforms without setting off a collapse, then 2014 could be viewed as a qualified success as reported unemployment rates remain low.

"This is the best possible miss you could have from a messaging standpoint," said Andrew Polk, economist at the Conference Board in Beijing. "The government is saying, 'We're not married to this specific target, we missed it, and we're OK.' That seems to me a quite positive development."

However, he added that the GDP figure was difficult to square with some of the negative underlying numbers.

Beijing has ruled out massive stimulus as China is still struggling to digest a mountain of debt left over from the $643.19 billion stimulus package of 2009.

China's stock markets, which on Monday posted their sharpest drop since 2008, were up after the announcement. Expectations of further stimulus measures made China stocks the top performing major market in the world last year, with gains of over 50 percent.

Also on Tuesday, one of China's official measures of its unemployment rate, known as the survey-based unemployment rate, stood at 5.1 percent in 2014, the Chinese statistics bureau said. However, many economists believe the few official employment readings in China underestimate the number of jobless.

Wire services

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