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Trade surplus growth expected to slow
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Last year wasn't easy for Chinese exporters, faced with an appreciating renminbi, tighter domestic policies and rising labor and material costs.

But the country's exports still surpassed imports by $262.2 billion last year. The surplus was up 47.7 percent from the previous year, according to the General Administration of Customs.

Exports reached $1.22 trillion last year, up 25.7 percent from 2006, while imports hit $955.8 billion, up 20.8 percent.

At this year's national commerce conference in Beijing, the ministry did not highlight "narrowing the trade surplus" as it did in 2007.

Experts predict China's trade surplus growth will slow this year, as exports could face "overlapping negative elements", but the surplus is set to stay high.

The government delivered the first blow to exports last year when it introduced measures to curb the growing surplus, such as scrapping tax rebates on high-polluting exports and imposing tariffs. These measures will continue to hit exporters this year, and analysts believe the gap between exports and imports will gradually narrow.

The measures' effects were already seen late last year. The country's soaring trade surplus eased in the fourth quarter, with imports catching up and exports slowing, the General Administration of Customs said.

"As a result of policy adjustment, exports in sectors like steel and textiles are expected to drop markedly," said Zhang Yansheng, director of the International Economic Research Institute affiliated to the National Development and Reform Commission.

He predicted China's net exports of crude steel would decline to 36 million tons this year from 53.1 million tons in 2007.

Price increases in labor and materials - such as oil, steel and plastic - reduced many exporters' profit margins last year, in particular those specializing in labor-intensive industries.

Reports said labor costs in China have increased to 77 US cents per hour, compared to 35 US cents in Vietnam.

Meanwhile, some experts said a possible recession in the US this year could affect China's exports.

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