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This time around, China opts for stimulus by stealth

Will they or won't they?

China is in its greatest economic slowdown since the 2008 financial crisis, leaving economists debating whether it is time for a sequel to that year's shock-and-awe stimulus package which forced the economy back on its feet.

So far it seems the Chinese government is taking a quieter, lower-key approach, warning there will not be a repeat of the four trillion yuan ($630-billion) outpouring of cash as there was last time around.

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"The Chinese government's intention is very obvious: It will not unveil another massive stimulus plan to stimulate economic growth," commentary on the state-run Xinhua news agency read this week. "Current policies to stabilize growth will not repeat the old way of stimulating growth three years ago."

The country's vice-premier, Li Keqiang, was also quoted on state radio this week calling for the country to focus on building domestic demand and economic reforms to maintain a "stable and relatively fast" economic growth.

Yet with GDP growth falling -- to an estimated 8.1 per cent in April, with May's data not expected to show improvement -- stimulus spending is beginning anyway, trickling out quietly on a number of fronts that may yet add up to a sizable package.

Policy makers are accelerating approvals of infrastructure investments, which the official Shanghai Securities News reported this week was improving demand for bank loans. The accelerated projects may be worth up to one trillion yuan, according to some economist estimates.

Another 26.5 billion yuan ($4.2-billion) is earmarked for subsidies on purchases of energy-efficient home appliances, similar to a 2008 program that was renewed then ended in December, in an attempt to boost domestic spending. A subsidy to encourage the replacement of old cars with new ones has also been resurrected.

Harder to measure is the government's decision to encourage private investment in previously state-controlled sectors, including railways, finance, energy, telecommunications, education and health care. The hope is that the private sector will inject new spending and generate jobs in a slowing economy, taking some of the burden off the government, though analysts have said it will take time for these sectors to really open to private firms.

The one area that does not seem up for discussion, however, are the property market measures which began China's cool-down in the first place. Local governments have begun offering more loans and preferred interest rates to first-time buyers without drawing central government criticism, but the broad measures designed to drive out speculators, including limiting property purchases to first- or second-time buyers with permanent residency in the city, are continuing.

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"It's a similar theme like last time, but it will depend more on investment," said Janet Zhang, macro economist for the research firm GK Dragonomics in Beijing. "I think the government wants to cushion the decline of the economy and prevent it from collapsing. It will not treat it like 2008."

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