A man wearing a face mask amid the Covid-19 coronavirus outbreak walks inside a nearly empty shopping mall in Beijing on March 30, 2020. Photo: AFP/Nicolas Asfouri

China’s economy contracted for the first time in decades last quarter as drastic measures to contain the coronavirus pandemic brought activity to a standstill, official data showed Friday.

Gross domestic product shrank 6.8% in the January-March quarter from the same period a year earlier, according to figures released by the National Bureau of Statistics (NBS).

It was the first negative growth reported by the world’s second-largest economy since it began logging quarterly data in the early 1990s.

The figure marks a sharp drop from China’s 6% expansion in the fourth quarter of last year, but was slightly better than the 8.2% contraction forecast by economists in an AFP poll. 

Economists in China and abroad have long harbored doubts about the accuracy of the official data, however, suspecting that the numbers are massaged for political reasons.

Analysts warn of tougher times ahead, with weaker external demand for Chinese goods to weigh on growth as its key trading markets are battered by Covid-19.

Full-year GDP growth expectations have fallen to 1.7%, according to AFP’s poll, which would be the worst annual performance since 1976.

The coronavirus and resulting containment efforts have already hammered China’s retail sales and industrial production.

Industrial output shrank 1.1% in March, reflecting lingering damage from factory shutdowns even as travel restrictions in the country were progressively eased and businesses stirred back to life.

Retail sales also plummeted 15.8% last month as many consumers stayed at home and avoided crowds due to fears of a resurgence in virus cases.

The urban unemployment rate also dropped slightly to 5.9% last month, after surging to 6.2% in February.

The International Monetary Fund has warned that Covid-19 will trigger a global recession likely to be the deepest economic contraction since the 1930s, and pegged China’s 2020 growth at a grim 1.2%.