China premier says economy faces growing downward pressure

BEIJING (REUTERS) - China's economy faces increased downward pressure, its premier has said, as the country prepares to announce first-quarter economic growth.

The government must "stand up to the downward pressure" to avoid an impact on employment and incomes, Premier Li Keqiang said late on Friday, according to a statement on the government's website.

"At this time, the national economy is running smoothly, but downward pressure continues to grow," he said.

Li also called for speeding up reforms in the northeast, a centre of mining and heavy industry that has been lagging in growth.

The central government will funnel more support to the region for infrastructure, agriculture and equipment export, he said.

Known as China's rust belt, the northeast was plagued by widespread layoffs in the 1990s, when the government forced state factories to shut en masse to cull inefficient industry.

Li called for the timely launch of major infrastructure projects in the region in areas such as transport and water conservation with the support of financial institutions.

The region enjoyed an economic boom in the past decade due to support from the central government and growing demand for raw materials and machinery products, but the revival has faltered this year as China's growth grinds toward a 24-year low.