THE Chinese leadership has tentatively fixed a growth rate of nine per cent for 1994. The central Government has also decided to contain inflation to within nine per cent. Chinese sources said the Chinese Communist Party leadership settled on a relatively cautious development strategy in view of persistent signs of the economy overheating. This month, major cities have been hit with a wave of price increases in commodities ranging from grain to consumer electronics, resulting in panic buying for some items. Official projections have put the growth of the gross national product (GNP) in 1993 at 13 per cent. The official inflation rate for urban China is around 20 per cent this year, but Western analysts indicate the figure is approaching 30 per cent in many cities. Chinese economists said that since the austerity programme, which was started in late June, had lasted a mere three months, Beijing was bracing itself for hyper-inflation in 1994. They said fear of social unrest triggered by inflation had helped the cautious wing within the leadership to impose the ''nine per cent consensus''. The rate of economic development has, since the mid-1980s, been one of the most divisive issues within the leadership. ''More radical reformers in the party have been lobbying for a growth rate of 10 per cent or more, which [patriarch] Deng Xiaoping has repeatedly recommended,'' a source said. ''They consider the nine per cent goal as too conservative, and prevented it from being written into the resolution adopted by the Central Committee plenum in November.'' The Chinese-run Hongkong daily Wen Wei Po yesterday quoted Prime Minister Li Peng as telling the official journal Chinese Talent that the growth rate for 1994 was ''preliminarily forecast'' at nine per cent. Mr Li, however, added that there was a possibility it would be more than that. The premier repeated Mr Deng's slogan about ''sustained, high-speed and healthy development'' but he put the emphasis on health rather than speed. ''We should not simplistically go after speed,'' Mr Li said. ''What we want is speed with efficiency so that products will meet the needs of the market, a speed that is based on a rational [economic] structure, high quality and good productivity.'' Yesterday, another pro-Beijing Hong Kong paper, Ta Kung Pao , quoted a ''responsible figure of the party Central Committee'' as saying that the GNP growth rate next year ''must not be too high'' and that inflation must be cut to ''within nine per cent''. Earlier, senior cadres indicated that they hoped inflation in 1994 would be below 10 per cent. The newspaper said the key to next year's development was to contain the scale of investment, particularly in capital construction and new projects. Economists in Beijing said, however, the leadership was worried about the impact of a spate of planned price increases on social stability. The prices of many staples and energy products like coal and oil would be decontrolled in early 1994. The procurement price of farm produce would be raised to persuade peasants to grow grain. It is understood that the wages as well as subsidies of urban workers will be upwardly adjusted to help them absorb the shock. In his interview with Chinese Talent, Premier Li also warned against excessive investment, particularly real estate. He said the emphasis in the property sector should be on providing mid to low-cost housing for urban workers.