Chinese gold demand could rise over 22 percent in the next three years and sharply outpace domestic production, the head of the country's largest state-owned gold miner China National Gold Group said on Thursday, signalling room for a strong ramp up in imports.

Gold production should reach 400 tonnes by 2014, a gain of nearly 19 percent from 2010, but consumption is set to grow by nearly a quarter to 700 tonnes, Sun Zhaoxue, president of the group, told reporters at the sidelines of a conference in Shanghai.

I'm very optimistic about the future of China's gold market, Sun said.

China produced 340 tonnes of gold in 2010 and investors locally bought 571.5 tonnes, according to official data, for a gap of 231.5 tonnes made up by either imports or sales of existing stocks.

The proportion of imports is not available because China doesn't regularly publish gold-trade figures and rarely comments on its reserves.

China has seen a spike in demand for gold and silver since late last year as investors looked to precious metals over stocks, property and savings.

India remains the world's largest gold buyer, but China is closing in and from a low base with room to grow quickly as income rise, Sun said, noting gold buying per capita stood at just 4 grams, much lower than other industrialised nations.

In April, Shanghai Gold Exchange, China's only specialty precious metals exchange, started a trial for over-the-counter trading, providing an easier tool for institutional clients to trade large quantities of gold.

Sun said Beijing's move to consolidate the gold mining sector, improve technology and encourage exploration at depths exceeding 1,000 metres would combine to boost the country's underground reserves and output over the coming years.

China's gold output in the first three months of 2011 totalled 73.4 tonnes, up 4.6 pct from the same months of 2010, the Ministry of Industry and Information Technology said.

Gold's decade-long price rally could take the metal above $1,600 an ounce by year-end, metals consultancy GFMS said in a widely anticipated industry report as investors' appetite for gold sharpens further.

Separately, Sun said the group was still considering whether to inject its copper assets into its Shanghai-listed China Zhongjin Gold .

Some don't support the idea of an injection. We are the fifth-largest copper producer in China and they think it may be better to spin off our copper assets, Sun said, adding the firm was also in talks with regulators on the subject.