China's export growth slowed more than expected in December, new figures show today.

The slowdown was due to a higher comparison base a year earlier and a clamp-down on speculative activities disguised as export deals.

But the outlook for 2014 is expected to be brighter as global demand picks up, giving more wiggle room for Chinese leaders to push through reforms to balance the world's second-largest economy.

Exports rose 4.3% in December from a year earlier, the Customs Administration said today, slowing from 12.7% in November and compared to market expectations of 4.9%. 

Imports rose 8.3%, an increase from the 5.3% increase recorded in November and overshooting the same rate expected by the market. This raised optimism that domestic demand may remain firm despite signs that the world's second-largest economy is losing steam.

The December trade surplus fell 24.3% from a year earlier to $25.6 billion, missing the forecast of $31.2 billion.

Exports to the US rose 3% in December from a year earlier, while sales to the European Union rose 3.9% and those to Japan climbed 5.5%, according to official figures.

For 2013, exports rose 7.9% and imports rose 7.3%, producing a trade surplus of $259.8 billion, up 12.4% from 2012.

China's combined exports and imports rose 7.6% in 2013, below the official target of 8%. In 2012, China missed a 10% annual growth target. The government does not set any target on exports.

Uncertain global demand, a stronger yuan currency and rising labour costs have taken their toll on Chinese exporters, but analysts believe sales could pick up modestly in 2014 due to improved demand from the US and Europe. 

The Chinese government is due to issue fourth-quarter gross domestic product data on January 20. A Reuters poll showed annual GDP growth could slow to 7.6% in the fourth quarter, putting 2013 growth on track for the weakest showing in 14 years. 

Chinese leaders have pledged reasonable growth in 2014, and sources at top government think tanks told Reuters they expect a growth target of 7.5%, the same as for 2013.

China's leaders want to wean the economy off its heavy reliance on investment and exports in favour of a more sustainable expansion in consumption and have unveiled the boldest economic and social reforms in nearly three decades to pursue that goal.