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China's trade growth surged in January but much of the increase was driven by the traditional Lunar New Year holiday.
Exports soared 25 percent over a year earlier, up from the previous month's 14.1 percent, as companies rushed to fill orders before shutting down for a holiday break of up to two weeks, data showed Friday. Import growth rocketed to 28 percent, more than quadruple the previous month's 6 percent.
China's trade growth has rebounded in recent months in a sign of economic recovery but longer-term trade measures are likely to show lower growth than January's double-digit increase.
"Seeing the underlying trend is a little difficult. Nevertheless, the data were above expectations and seem generally positive," said Moody's Analytics economist Alaistair Chan in a report.
Last year's Lunar New Year shutdown began in January, leaving fewer work days and boosting this year's figures by comparison. This year's holiday falls entirely in February, which will make this month's trade look unusually weak.
Once holiday distortions are factored out, trade growth for the first three months of the year should be in high single digits, said Goldman Sachs economists in a report.
China's economic growth ticked up in the final quarter of last year from a three-year low. Analysts say a recovery in the world's second-largest economy still is shaky and will be too weak to drive a global rebound without a turnaround in the United States and Europe.
The World Bank and private sector forecasters expect economic growth of about 7.5 percent this year. That would be stronger than the West and Japan but China's weakest performance since the 1990s.
A slowdown in Chinese demand could hurt trading partners from Africa to Australia to Brazil where exports of oil, iron ore and other raw materials to China's factories have fueled an economic boom.
Beijing is pinning its hopes for recovery on government-driven investment and domestic consumer spending that is rising but not as fast as authorities want. Officials warned last year that global demand was so weak that trade would contribute little or nothing to overall economic growth.
The country's global trade surplus widened 6.5 percent from January 2012 to $29.2 billion. Exports were $187.4 billion while imports totaled $158.2 billion.
The politically volatile trade surplus with the United States, which has temporarily overtaken the struggling European Union as China's biggest export market, narrowed by 2.8 percent from a year earlier to a still-hefty $17.2 billion.
The trade surplus with the 27-nation EU contracted 10.9 percent to $12.3 billion. Exports to France fell 6.4 percent and shipments to Italy were off 2.8 percent.
Analysts warn China's recovery could be vulnerable if trade weakens or the government fails to pump enough money into the economy through investment. Societe Generale said last month there still is a chance of a "hard landing" this year, with growth dropping below 6 percent — dangerously low for China.
"A deceleration is likely by the end of the year if further stimulus measures are not forthcoming, which they probably won't because of latent inflation pressures," said Chan of Moody's. "Exports are expected to record moderate growth as the global economy recovers."
Genneral Administration of Customs of China (in Chinese): www.customs.gov.cn