By Aileen Wang and Adam Rose
BEIJING (Reuters) - China's economy is doing better than official data suggests, the Commerce Ministry said a day after figures showed growth at an 18-month low, adding that targets for exports and imports this year should be met despite some caution over the trade outlook.
Ministry spokesman Shen Danyang said a rise in export deliveries, a customs department poll of exporters and growth in trade in individual provinces all showed that the economy was in good shape.
"I agree with the opinion that the economy and trade were faring better than the released data showed," Shen told reporters at a briefing on Thursday.
Data on Wednesday showed the economy grew an annual 7.4 percent in the first quarter, its slowest pace in 18 months but just ahead of forecasts for 7.3 percent growth.
March trade figures earlier this month showed exports unexpectedly fell for a second successive month and imports dropped sharply.
Shen said trade numbers in 2013 had been artificially inflated by the reporting of fake deals, used to avoid capital controls, before a crackdown. That was one of the reasons for the sharp drop in trade figures in the first quarter, he added.
"Stripping off the abnormally high comparison base of last year, China's exports and imports in the first quarter actually grew 4.6 percent and 9.6 percent respectively," he said.
The government has repeatedly said it would accept slower growth to push forward its restructuring of the economy away from a reliance on investment and credit for growth.
Commerce Ministry data on Thursday showed foreign direct investment (FDI) inflows of $12.2 billion in March, down 1.5 percent from a year earlier. However, total first-quarter FDI grew by an annual 5.5 percent to $31.5 billion, and Shen said the trend of steady growth was intact.
The government wants to attract FDI to services, high-end manufacturing, and environmental industries instead of into low-value factories, and wants local firms to increase offshore investment.
FDI in the service sector rose by 20.6 percent in the first quarter from a year earlier. Services attracted 55 percent of foreign direct investment, and manufacturing took 37 percent.
Outbound investment by non-financial Chinese firms was $19.9 billion in the first quarter, down 16.5 percent from a year ago.
It had fallen an annual 37.2 percent in the first two months of 2014, and the commerce ministry had previously said a $15 billion acquisition by oil and gas producer CNOOC in early 2013 was the reason for the sharp drop.
The data showed outbound investment to Hong Kong fell 47 percent in the first quarter from last year. Investment in ASEAN countries and the European Union also fell.
Last week, the economic planning commission said it would ease restrictions on overseas investments by allowing firms to make deals of less than $1 billion without approval.
(Editing by John Mair)