The world's second-largest economy expanded 7.5 per cent over a year earlier in the three months ending in June, down from the previous quarter's 7.7 per cent, data showed Monday. Growth in factory production, investment and other indicators weakened.
The fifth straight quarter of growth below 8 per cent is "a clear sign of distress," said IHS Global Insight analyst Xianfang Ren in a report. With investment weak, she said the economy might be "at risk of stalling."
Analysts said growth could fall further, adding to pressure on communist leaders who took power last year. They are trying to shift China from reliance on exports and investment to slower, more sustainable growth based on domestic consumption.
Chinese leaders are likely to launch new stimulus to hit their 7.5 per cent growth target for the year, said Credit Agricole CIB economist Dariusz Kowalczyk. He said that might include weakening the Chinese currency to spur exports or pumping money into the economy through higher public works spending.
"We will see some targeted measures to stimulate growth," said Kowalczyk. "They have to do something. Otherwise they will miss their target. And they cannot afford that, because this is their first year in power."
A decline in Chinese economic activity could have global repercussions, denting revenues for suppliers of commodities and industrial components such as Australia, Brazil and Southeast Asia. Lower Chinese demand already has depressed prices for iron ore and other raw materials.
A stimulus would temporarily set back Beijing's reform plans by reinforcing reliance on investment to generate jobs.
Despite the slowdown, communist leaders have expressed determination to stick to their plans, which would impose short-term pain in exchange for sustained, stable growth later.
"Major indicators are within our targeted range but we face a complex situation," said a spokesman for the statistics bureau, Sheng Laiyuan, at a news conference.
Sheng said the government's goal is to "promote restructuring" and make more of the "driving force" of the market.
Growth in factory output slowed to 9.3 per cent for the first half of the year, down 0.2 percentage points from the first quarter's rate, the statistics bureau reported. Growth in investment in factories and other fixed assets in the first half declined by 0.8 percentage points to 20.1 per cent.
"Further deceleration is possible if reforms and stimulus measures are delayed," said Alaistair Chan of Moody's Analytics in a report.
The International Monetary Fund last week cut its 2013 growth forecast for China to 7.8 per cent from its 8.1 per cent outlook in April. The IMF's forecast for 2014 was cut to 7.7 per cent from 8.3 per cent. The Fund's chief economist, Olivier Blanchard, said China was the country at the greatest risk of a "large decrease in growth."
On Monday, Nomura economist Zhiwei Zhang cut his growth forecast for 2014 to 6.9 per cent from 7.5 per cent and said growth was likely to bottom out at 6.5 per cent in the second quarter of next year. He said he expects Chinese leaders to cut their growth target for next year to 7 per cent from 7.5 per cent.
"The new leaders made it pretty clear that they care more about the quality and sustainability of GDP growth rather than the speed of it," Zhang told reporters in a conference call.
Retail sales are growing but more slowly than Chinese leaders want. Growth decelerated to 12.7 per cent for the first quarter, declining by 1.7 percentage points from a year earlier.
"I think it is unrealistic to expect consumption to go up and fill the gap left by less investment," said Nomura's Zhang.
Chinese leaders have promised to launch reforms aimed at making the economy more productive and helping entrepreneurs. But no major changes are expected until after a Communist Party meeting in the autumn.
Growth also has been dented by a crackdown on overly fast expansion in bank lending. Government efforts to tighten lending controls caused a temporary shortage of credit in Chinese financial markets last month.
Further efforts to rein in lending, especially unregulated private lending, could hurt entrepreneurs who generate most of the country's new jobs and wealth.
The ruling party's 7.5 per cent growth target for the year is stronger than forecasts for the United States, Europe and Japan, but China's weakest performance since 1991. Finance Minister Lou Jiwei appeared to try to lower expectations last week when he told reporters in Washington that growth as low as 6.5 per cent would be tolerable.
Earlier this month, Beijing promised changes in its government-run banking industry, including possible creation of privately owned lenders, to increase the supply of credit to entrepreneurs and more productive companies. It gave no timetable.
"The payoff from such financial consolidation efforts will most likely show up in the medium and long-term, even if implemented successfully," said Ren of IHS Global Insight. "In the near term, the downside risk for growth has become much more elevated now than a few months ago."