China's exports suffered an unexpected 14.6% fall in March to 886.83 billion yuan (about $143 billion), the government said today, a further sign of weakness in the world's second-largest economy.
Imports tumbled 12.3% to 868.67 billion yuan, the General Administration of Customs said, while the monthly trade surplus plummeted 62.6% to 18.16 billion yuan.
The export decline was far off what economists had expected, with a survey by Bloomberg News projecting an increase of 8.2%. The poll forecast imports to decrease 11.3%.
A Customs spokesman blamed a later start for China's annual Lunar New Year holidays this year than in 2014, saying that factoring in seasonal effects the March exports fall was only 4.4%.
But he acknowledged that there were challenges.
"There remain some difficulties facing China's foreign trade in the near future," he told reporters, adding that export prospects in second quarter were clouded by uncertainty.
China's economy slumped to annual growth of 7.4% in 2014, the weakest result in 24 years. The slowdown appears to have continued into this year as indicators including industrial production, consumer spending and fixed asset investment have slumped.
The Chinese government last month lowered its official growth target for this year to about 7%. It also cut its trade growth target to about 6%, from the 7.5% goal set for last year.
Actual trade expanded 3.4% in 2014, the third consecutive time the annual target was missed, due to weakening domestic and foreign demand.
China's rulers are trying to manage a delicate rebalancing of the economy to make growth more consumer driven and sustainable, but also making sure expansion does not slow so much that employment declines, which could cause popular discontent - a key concern of the Communist Party.
In a show of their willingness to put a floor on the economy's deceleration, authorities have used monetary policy tools such as cuts in benchmark interest rates and bank reserve requirements to shore up growth.
The central People's Bank of China earlier this year cut interest rates for the second time in three months and carried out an across-the-board reduction in the reserve requirement ratio - the amount of money banks must keep on hand - for the first time since May 2012.
For the first three months of this year, China's trade surplus soared over 600% to 755.33 billion yuan, Customs said, reflecting record monthly trade surpluses in January and February.
Exports rose 4.9% to 3.15 trillion yuan, while imports dropped 17.3% to 2.39 trillion yuan, figures showed.