In a development that surprised analysts, China's trade balance swung to a deficit of $7.3 billion in February, as exports slowed during the Lunar New Year holidays.
Today's number compares with a $6.5 billion surplus in January. Exports increased 2.4 per cent from a year earlier and imports climbed 19.4 per cent.
Although China is often criticised by US politicians for running a large trade surplus, this is the second time in the past 12 months that Chinese data have revealed imports outstripping exports. As the world's largest consumer of commodities, China's imports have ballooned in value as prices for raw materials rise.
With many Chinese factories closing for up to a month during the holidays, the Customs Bureau cited the Lunar New Year as a key factor in keeping exports low, a view echoed by analysts.
This week Chen Deming, China's minister of commerce, said the country's trade surplus would fall this year. The government aimed to ''stabilise exports, increase imports, and shrink the trade surplus'', he told reporters at the National People's Congress in Beijing.
While Chinese export data are typically read as an informal barometer of the strength of the global economy, economists said the weak numbers – export growth fell to 2.4 per cent year-on-year in spite of some forecasts that it would be as high as 27.1 per cent – should not be taken at face value.