BEIJING — China’s gross domestic product increased by 9.7 percent in the first quarter of this year, officials announced, a growth rate beyond expectations that could spark new fears about the economy overheating.
 
In a news conference unrolling the country’s quarterly economic statistics, a spokesman for the National Bureau of Statistics said GDP was up 9.7 percent over last year during the same period, which was a quicker pace than expected but still below the 9.8 percent growth rate of the final quarter of 2010.

The overall growth rate last year was 9.6 percent, slowing after growth rates of 11.9 percent in the first quarter and 10.3 percent in the second.

“The national economy had a good beginning with steady and relatively fast growth,” said Sheng Laiyun, spokesman for the statistics bureau.
 
Of greater concern, consumer inflation rose by 5.4 percent in March, a sharp rise from February, according to the statistics bureau. That is the largest monthly rise since early 2008, and underscores the central government’s growing concern with how to curb prices.
 
The Chinese government considers quelling inflation key to maintaining social stability. Increasing global oil and commodity prices have added new pressures to China’s inflation problem. The primary driver of inflation has been food prices, which increased 11.7 percent in the first quarter.
 
In March, Premier Wen Jiabao told the annual National People’s Congress that inflation would be among the primary tasks of the central government this year. The People’s Bank of China just recently raised interest rates for the second time this year, but prices continue to spiral upward.
 
According to a Xinhua news agency report of a State Council meeting this week, Wen said again that inflation remains a critical concern.
 
“We will try every means to stabilize prices, the top priority of our economic controls this year and also our most pressing task,” Wen was quoted as telling the cabinet. “We should never lower our guard.”

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