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China will promote the sales of export products in domestic markets, as foreign trade faces unprecedented challenges due to the coronavirus pandemic, an assistant commerce minister said on Friday.

As the coronavirus spreads to almost all of China’s trading partners, the world’s second-largest economy is set to reach a grim milestone for full year growth, with the pace of expansion likely to be the slowest since the Cultural Revolution ended in 1976. And, the export sector is facing millions of job losses and factory shutdowns.

“Due to the rapid spread of the epidemic in the world, foreign demand has slumped and the biggest difficulty facing foreign trade companies is the plunge in orders,” said Ren Hongbin, the assistant minister at the Ministry of Commerce.

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He said firms across the board have had their orders cancelled or delayed, and new orders are “very hard to sign”.

“The uncertainty about the pandemic has become the biggest uncertainty for foreign trade development.”

Forecasters expect China’s 2020 growth could be nearer the 2.0% mark - the slowest in over 40 years - due to the sweeping impact of the pandemic both at home and overseas. The economy grew 6.1% last year.

China’s overseas shipments fell 17.2% in January-February from the same period a year earlier, marking the steepest fall since February 2019. Imports sank 4% from a year earlier.

Among the government measures to support the sector, China is accelerating efforts to build online trade fairs and guiding exporters to work with e-commerce retailers for sales in domestic markets and coordinating with its trading partners to stabilise supply chains, said Ren.

The Canton Fair, China’s oldest and biggest trade fair due to take place online, will feature live-streaming services for participants, Li Xingqian, another commerce ministry official, told the same briefing. The fair was originally scheduled to begin on April 15, but was postponed due to the coronavirus outbreak.

China is willing to boost trade relations with other countries, including the United States, under the new circumstances, said Ren, adding that Beijing hopes to work together with Washington to promote bilateral trade.

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Both countries have been engaged in a near two-year long trade war with tit-for-tat tariffs on each other’s goods, before negotiators called a truce with an interim trade deal in January.

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