BEIJING - China's economic growth slowed to 6.1 per cent in the first quarter from a year earlier, hit by the global slump, but the government said conditions were better than expected.

"The overall national economy showed positive changes, with better performance than expected," Li Xiaochao, a spokesman for the National Bureau of Statistics, said at a news conference Thursday.

The economy slowed from 6.8 per cent growth reported in the previous quarter but beat forecasts by some private sector economists.

Beijing is carrying out a multibillion-dollar stimulus in an effort to shield China from the worst global economic slowdown since the 1930s.

The collapse in global demand for Chinese goods threw at least 20 million people out of work as factories closed. It is unclear how many of those workers might have found new jobs in projects financed by the stimulus package.

Consumer spending rose 15 per cent in the quarter, the bureau reported, though that rate was slightly lower than growth reported for previous months. The government is hoping to boost domestic consumption to reduce reliance on falling exports.

Consumer prices fell by 1.2 per cent in March, the data showed, leaving Beijing room to cut interest rates further to boost growth while avoiding fueling pressure for prices to rise.

Industrial production rose 5.1 per cent in the quarter, though that was 11.3 percentage points lower than the growth for the same period of 2007.