By Joe McDonald

BEIJING -- General Motors ( GM) said Tuesday its sales in China rose 6% to 1.09 million vehicles in 2008, but growth slowed as consumers held back amid an economic downturn.

GM is looking to China's booming auto market to drive global sales growth as demand in North America and other developed markets slump. In 2007, the Detroit-based automaker's China sales, including joint ventures, rose 19%.

GM is one of China's top automakers along with Germany's Volkswagen. Global producers have raced to open factories and tailor models for China, which has grown into the world's second-biggest vehicle market after the United States.

GM has been aggressive in China, setting up eight joint ventures, a vehicle development center in Shanghai and an alternative fuel research lab. Robert Socia, vice president of Shanghai GM, its passenger car joint venture, said in November the Chinese market is "very, very important to us."

The largest American carmaker says its new Cadillac CTS sedan was designed for China, with a bigger back seat because many buyers have chauffeurs. The company says it is working on five new models for China to be sold under its Buick and Chevrolet brands.

In the U.S., GM sales of cars and light trucks fell 31% in December from a year earlier. Last month, Washington agreed to provide $17.4 billion in emergency, short-term loans for GM and fellow U.S. carmaker Chrysler to help them survive the downturn.

China's auto sales, which grew in recent years at double-digit rates, have weakened as economic growth slowed. In November, sales of cars and light trucks plunged 13% from a year earlier, according to J.D. Power & Associates.

Analysts say China's total auto sales growth last year should be about 8%, down from 22% in 2007. GM says it expects passenger car sales to recover to about 10% growth in 2009.

Ford ( F) says it will release 2008 China sales on Friday. Volkswagen data also are due out shortly.
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