China's factory activity falls in January as coronavirus fears grow

Beijing battles the spread of deadly virus that has triggered an unprecedented shutdown of transport and business

In this Jan. 22, 2020 photo, shoppers wear face masks as they line up at a grocery store in Wuhan in central China's Hubei Province. Complicated logistics are part of a daily flow of food and other goods authorities say is sustaining Wuhan and surrounding cities with a total of 50 million people. Most are blocked from leaving in the most sweeping disease-control measures ever imposed. (AP Photo/Arek Rataj)
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China's manufacturing activity slipped in January, official data released on Friday showed, as the country grapples with a coronavirus that has killed more than 200 people.

The Purchasing Managers' Index (PMI), an early gauge of factory activity, came in at 50, down slightly from 50.2 the month before.

A reading above 50 indicates the sector is expanding while below that number shows contraction.

The figure comes as Beijing battles the spread of a coronavirus that has triggered an unprecedented shutdown of transport and business in Hubei province - the centre of the outbreak.

However, the National Bureau of Statistics said the survey was conducted before January 20 so "the impact of pneumonia caused by the new coronavirus has not yet fully manifested".

The first patients were taken ill in early December but many of the restrictions only came into effect over the last week.

Non-manufacturing activity stood at 54.1, an improvement from 53.5 in December.

Higher demand ahead of the Lunar New Year holiday was said to have contributed to December's expansion after a tough year for China amid its trade war with the Unite States.

United Overseas Bank economist Ho Woei Chen told AFP that Friday's numbers do not reflect the full impact of the virus.

"The first-order impact is on tourism and transportation," she said. "This will have a direct and immediate impact on private consumption and industrial activities in China, with many companies extending their closures and residents being quarantined."

In the longer run, supply chains in Asia could take a hit, she said.

But Ms Ho was optimistic that if the outbreak is contained within the first half of the year, the economy could improve in the second half - given the rebound seen after the 2003 outbreak in China of Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (Sars).

For now, analysts at Goldman Sachs are looking at "short, sharp shocks to economic output" - as seen with past viral outbreaks - and are projecting lower growth for China this year.

"A more prolonged outbreak could lower full-year growth to 5 per cent or even below," analysts said in a note.

The world's second-largest economy grew by 6.1 per cent last year.

Chinese holidaymakers have been staying home this Lunar New Year after authorities closed attractions, cancelled major events and urged people to avoid large gatherings.

Cinemas have also closed during what is usually a prime period for blockbuster releases.

Other nations have told their citizens to avoid travel to China and airlines have trimmed their schedules for flights to the country.

Manufacturers too are not taking any chances, with Taiwanese tech giant Foxconn closing its Chinese factories until mid-February.

Toyota, Starbucks, Tesla and Volkswagen are among corporate giants temporarily freezing production or shuttering large numbers of outlets in China.

The public holiday period may mean there is little immediate impact on car manufacturers, but there is growing concern about the virus's longer-term effects.