China is warning that its economy will face severe difficulties in the coming year, with exports hardest hit. The warning comes as China begins its first year as a member of the World Trade Organization.

Vice-chairman of the State Economic and Trade Commission Zhang Zhigang says that slowing growth in the United States, Japan and Europe will pose a serious threat to China's economy in the next year.

Mr. Zhang tells a news conference in Beijing Thursday that "China faces what he calls a tough situation in 2002, with the global slowdown hurting the country's trade performance and exports in particular." He says "he hopes the economy will grow seven percent next year."

That forecast is down from this year's growth rate of about 7.4 percent. Many analysts regard a seven percent growth rate as the minimum needed to absorb millions of workers laid off from the state sector. The official Xinhua News Agency said Wednesday that China must create eight million new jobs next year, and try to limit the urban unemployment rate to 4.5 percent.

Government warnings of slowing growth come as China this week began its first year as a member of the World Trade Organization, which will open up many Chinese industries to greater foreign competition.

Mr. Zhang says that "China will honor its WTO Commitments to liberalize the economy, but that as a new member of the trade body, the country needs time to learn and adapt to WTO rules." "The government will maintain a long-term policy of stimulating domestic demand to make up for falling exports," he says. "Consumer spending accounted for more than 60 percent of China's economic growth this year, and expects that level to remain the same in 2002."