China exports surge in 2021 as global demand picks up

Chinese exports surged in 2021 on solid global demand as countries reopened, official data showed Friday, bumping its overall trade surplus to a record high and providing a much-needed boost to the stuttering economy, but officials warned of headwinds.

The world’s second-biggest economy saw a quick rebound from the coronavirus last year — after cases first surfaced in a central city in late 2019 — allowing factories to operate and feed global appetite for electronics and medical supplies.

That led to a 29.9 percent spike in exports last year, helping push the annual trade surplus to $676 billion, customs data showed.

The surge came on the back of an uptick in shipments of mechanical and electronic products, customs spokesman Li Kuiwen said.

Although China “handed in a dazzling report card” in the face of challenges, Li told reporters Friday that the economy “faces triple pressures of demand contraction, supply shock and weakening expectations”.

Imports increased 30.1 percent last year. In December, exports rose largely in line with expectations — at 20.9 percent — while imports disappointed with 19.5 percent growth.

The December export figures “may reflect the Omicron damage to the global supply chain”, with export orders shifting to China from other countries, said Zhiwei Zhang, chief economist at Pinpoint Asset Management.

“Currently, the strong exports may be the only driver helping China’s economy,” he added. Analysts at Capital Economics earlier noted there were early signs of supply-side constraints easing last month, while export prices were likely still rising — bumping up the value of shipments. Meanwhile, a fall in commodity prices weighed on import values.

China’s trade surplus with the United States, however, widened 25 percent last year to $396.6 billion. While a deal marking a ceasefire in the bruising trade war between Beijing and Washington expired this month, two years after it was signed, authorities have yet to confirm their next steps.

Former US president Donald Trump had pushed to narrow the US trade gap with China, signing a partial pact to boost Chinese purchases of goods like soybeans. Asked this week if there would be a continuation of the earlier deal or phase two negotiations, China’s commerce ministry said that both sides maintained normal communications.

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