Chen's comments came amid reports that the country's president has ordered the country's 2.3 million armed forces to be ready to obey government orders "at any time and under any circumstances".

The demand was issued by the Central Military Commission at a meeting over the weekend presided over by Hu Jintao, who is also the commission's chairman.

"We may take further new, timely and decisive measures ... pre-emptively before an economic retreat"

Wen Jiabao, Chinese premier

The call comes as China approaches some sensitive anniversaries later this year, including the 50th anniversary of a failed uprising in Tibet and 20 years since the Tiananmen Square crackdown.

China's economic growth has slowed significantly in recent months as result of the global downturn, forcing factories across the country to close and throwing thousands out of work.

Adding further pressure, officials say, is the fact that between five and six million new rural migrants are joining the hunt for work every year.

China's leaders have based their legitimacy on being able to raise standards of living.

One of their biggest worries is that a rising tide of unemployment could fuel social unrest and pose a serious challenge to the communist party's grip on power.

Recent months have seen dozens of small-scale protests by workers demanding unpaid wages or angry at being laid off.

Stimulus plan

Wen promised to unveil more measures
to boost domestic demand [AFP]

On Sunday Wen Jiabao, the Chinese premier, told a business audience in London that the world's third largest economy had shown signs of picking up during the final days of 2008 but that further stimulus measures might be needed to keep up the momentum.

In November, the Chinese government announced a four trillion yuan ($586bn) plan over the next two years to help boost domestic demand.

Speaking to the Financial Times Wen said the government may take "further new, timely and decisive measures" in the coming days.

"All these measures have to be taken pre-emptively before an economic retreat," he said in the interview published late on Sunday.

Wen, who is on the last leg of a European tour, said he would unveil stimulus measures for the shipbuilding and textile industries when he returns to China.