A crude oil tanker unloads at Qingdao Port, Shandong province. Photo: Reuters/Stringer

State-owned enterprises were a key driver behind the resoundingly strong import figures for the first two months, having jumped 51.7% from a year ago to 466.7 billion yuan (US$67.6 billion). Their craving for iron ore and crude oil, along with other basic industrial materials pushed the import figures to the best start in a year since 2011.

Chinese imports jumped 44.7% from a year ago in February in yuan terms, going another notch higher from January’s 25.3% gain. The actual import growth beat economists expectations of a 23.1% rise, according to a Bloomberg survey. For the first two months of 2017, total imports grew 34.2%.

SOEs collectively account for a massive 26% share of overall import cargo by value, versus 23% during the same period a year ago.

On the other hand, foreign-owned companies fared the worst, reporting a sub-par gain in overall imports of only 24.1%.

Shipments from China’s major trading partners arrived at a breakneck pace, highlighting the sudden pickup in domestic demand for various bulk industrial commodities that goes into feeding the country’s awakening industrial sector – in particularly the larger one as seen in recent manufacturing PMI reports – as the country returned from January’s Lunar New Year holiday.

Chain of iron: Australian minerals such as iron ore, seen being loaded at Port Hedland in Western Australia, are vital to China’s economic health. Photo: Reuters/David Gray

Combining figures for January and February, imports of iron ore rose 12.6% by volume to 175 million tons, but unit prices were up 83.7% to 532.1 yuan per ton.

Similarly, crude oil imports gained 12.5% by tonnage to 66 million tons, as its unit cost rose 60.5% to 2673.6 yuan per ton.

Coal imports jumped 48.5% by volume, but the average cost per ton more than doubled from a year earlier to 640.7 yuan per ton.

The value of US-sourced cargoes in the first two months surged 41% to 163.5 billion yuan, while those from neighbouring Association of Southeast Asian Nations members totaled 219.6 billion yuan, up by a whopping 37.4%. Imports from Japan and EU also were strong, expanding 32% and 26.4%, respectively.

Automobile imports were also strong, up 41.3% to 160,000 vehicles.

Imported Mercedes Benz cars are parked at Tianjin Port, in northern China.           Photo: Reuters/Jason Lee

Unfortunately, China’s export side didn’t do quite as well in February judging from the significant pullback witnessed by the exporters, which saw the year-on-year growth of outbound shipments sliding to just 4.2% from the preceding month’s 15.9%. Economists were looking for a 14.6% gain.

Products from various traditional labor-intensive manufacturing sectors reported some of the worst export figures for the first two months. Clothings, textiles, and furnitures fell 4.4%, 0.6% and 0.7% in value terms. These contractions are in stark contrast to the overall 11% pickup in exports.

The surge in imports and simultaneous weakness in exports blew a 60.4 billion yuan (US$9.2 billion) hole in China’s trade balance, against expectations for a healthy surplus of 172.5 billion.

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