BEIJING (AP) — China's trade suffered its biggest decline in January since the 2008 crisis — a new sign of weak global demand and a slowing domestic economy.
Exports fell 0.5 percent from a year earlier to $149.9 billion, while imports were down 15 percent at $122.7 billion, customs data showed Friday. China's politically sensitive global trade surplus tripled compared with a year earlier to $27.3 billion.
Analysts expected January trade to fall due to the Lunar New Year holiday, the country's most important holiday. Chinese exporters rushed out orders in December and then shut down for two weeks or more in January.
But the import decline was sharper than expected, suggesting that even with the holiday factored in, the world's second-largest economy is slowing markedly. China is a major buyer of iron ore, oil and other commodities and industrial components, meaning any downturn could hurt suppliers such as Australia, Brazil and South Africa.
"Such a dramatically low import number reflects extremely weak domestic demand, as investment slumps and drags on economic activity," said IHS Global Insight analyst Alistair Thornton in a report.
The Lunar New Year falls at different times during January or February each year, distorting trade figures. Analysts usually group the two months together and have said they will not have a clear picture until March.
China's export growth has declined steadily as Europe's debt problems and high U.S. unemployment hurt demand for goods. But January was the first outright contraction compared with a year earlier since the 2008 crisis.
Import growth has weakened as Beijing tightened lending curbs to cool an overheated economy and export industries bought less imported raw materials and components as foreign orders weakened.
China's rapid economic growth eased to a 2 1/2-year low of 8.9 percent in the final quarter of 2011, down from 2010's 10.3 percent.
The International Monetary Fund is forecasting 8.2 percent growth this year but has warned that could be cut by nearly half if Europe, China's biggest export market, suffers a severe fall in activity due to its debt woes.
Private sector growth forecasts for 2012 are as low as 7.5 percent.
Construction curbs imposed to discourage overinvestment and cool surging housing prices have cut demand for cement, steel and other building materials. That is bad news for commodity suppliers that are counting on China to help drive global sales as demand elsewhere falters.
In December, import growth fell to 11.8 percent from November's 22.1 percent while export growth declined marginally to 13.4 percent.
China's electricity consumption, an indicator of activity, fell by 7.5 percent compared with a year earlier, the newspaper China Securities Journal reported earlier.
That was the first decline since the 2008 crisis and, before that, since 2002, according to Nomura economist Zhiwei Zhang.
"We therefore believe that this drop reflects a sharp slowdown in industrial production," Zhang said in a report.
China General Administration of Customs: www.customs.gov.cn