A CONSENSUS is emerging among economists that China's leaders have finally adopted a more unified, realistic strategy for setting the nation on the road to sustainable economic growth. In contrast with past years, when the Chinese Government and independent economists held widely divergent views on the mainland's economy, observers yesterday generally welcomed premier Li Peng's estimates as achievable. Benny Chiu, research manager at Hongkong Bank China Services, said: 'If China continues with its current policies, in the best situation we can hope for growth of 8 per cent to 10 per cent over the next few years. That would be very acceptable.' According to an advance copy of Mr Li's speech, which he will give today at the National People's Congress, the economy is expected to grow by 8 per cent this year and retail price inflation to rise 10 per cent. That would signify a considerable drop from last year, when the economy expanded 10.2 per cent and inflation increased 14.8 per cent. Mr Li believes economic growth will average 8 per cent over the Ninth Five-Year Plan (1996-2000), with inflation rising even slower. Ma Guonan, a senior economist at Peregrine Brokerage, was optimistic. 'I think this is more or less achievable. '[The Chinese Government] does not want explosive expansion again. They want to be conservative.' Economists said the Government's success in meeting its goals required a prudent monetary policy, significant progress in reforming state-owned enterprises and a more balanced approach to developing industry and agriculture. Overheating is one worry that has so far made the Chinese leadership maintain a tight credit policy and give top priority to the fight against inflation. But economic factors are only part of the equation. Schroder's Securities economist Tao Dong warned: 'Over the next five years, unemployment will replace inflation to become the top headache of the government.' Although official statistics put unemployment at 2.8 per cent last year - down slightly from 2.9 per cent in 1994 - Mr Tao estimated that about 10 per cent of the urban population comprised a pool of hidden unemployment. He said about 15 million people were 'invisible unemployed', meaning that they were redundant and being spared total unemployment by the government for fear of social unrest. They were only earning half their regular salaries from the state companies that employed them. Mr Tao said social pressures would force the government to permit higher than expected economic growth and inflation over the next few years, in the name of stability. He said 10 per cent inflation was possible this year, but the economy would grow about 9.5 per cent. For next year, he predicted 13 per cent inflation and 10.3 per cent economic growth. DBS Securities economist Pan Ming was confident that the government could achieve its growth targets for this year, but he worried that any further slowdown could mean trouble. 'If China wants to eventually bring inflation down to eight per cent it can do it, but it will have to pay a price. It may have to depress economic activity.' Mr Chiu said China's ability to achieve good harvests and resolve infrastructure bottlenecks would determine its success in lowering inflation. He praised the mainland's decision to make regional leaders responsible for agricultural output. That system contributed to last year's bumper harvest, which came in spite of natural disasters. 'The saying of giving priority to the agriculture sector isn't so hollow any more,' he said. At the enterprise level, the government needs to focus on reducing the number of poor investment decisions and improving the quality of company management, Mr Chiu said. Another boost to China's anti-inflationary measures could come from the expected shrinkage of the trade surplus. As exports fall and imports rise on the back of changes in the tax structure, foreign exchange reserves and monetary growth rates will slow. Ann Shih, head of China research at W.I. Carr, said she did not expect the market to react strongly to Mr Li's speech.