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China's economy sags under widespread COVID-19 lockdowns

China's economy expanded 4.8 percent in the first quarter of 2022, versus the same three months in 2021, the National Bureau of Statistics said Monday, and that already anemic number "obscured a looming problem," The New York Times reports. Much of that growth was logged in January and February, before the COVID-19 Omicron variant surged in China, leading to strict lockdowns in the southern technology hub Shenzhen, then Shanghai and other key industrial centers.

Counting cities were movement in and out was restricted to full-on shelter-in-place lockdowns like the one imposed on Shanghai, 87 of China's 100 largest cities were in some type of lockdown by April 11, according to the economic research firm Gavekal Dragonomics. Tech and auto sectors have been warning in recent days about the economic effects of the shutdowns on their industries, among the biggest employers in China. 

"Shanghai is a hub for international car companies — if the hub fails, the whole system won't work," Cui Dongshu, the secretary general of the China Passenger Car Association, told the Times

Chinese authorities have reported more than 443,000 COVID-19 cases since March 1, including just two deaths in northeastern Jilin province, but those numbers are low based on international standards of tallying cases and fatalities, the Financial Times reports.

For example, more than 92 percent of the more than 20,000 cases reported in Shanghai each day are listed as asymptomatic, but patients are only listed as symptomatic if their positive test is confirmed by a lung scan, a Chinese official close to the Chinese Center for Disease Control and Prevention tells the Financial Times. "This means tens of thousands of people who tested positive and had cold-like symptoms were recorded as 'asymptomatic,' unlike in many other countries."

Jin Dong-yan, a virologist at a Hong Kong university, tells FT that mainland China tends to list chronic illnesses like heart disease as the cause of death rather than COVID-19, even if the person was infected with the coronavirus. "The numbers are not accurate, but Shanghai hospitals are not necessarily doing this on purpose," he said. "From the start, China had this method of recording deaths."