Increased buying of foreign products reduced China's 2003 trade surplus by more than 16 percent to US$25.5 billion, figures from the Ministry of Commerce show.
In the march towards balanced trade, imports outstripped the growth in exports and rose 39.9 percent to US$412.84 billion last year. Exports surged by 34.6 percent to US$438.37 billion.
Total annual foreign trade volume reached US$851.21 billion, up 37.1 percent. The figure is higher than the forecast of US$780-800 billion.
China is expected to replace France as the fourth largest trader in the world, following the United States, Japan and Germany.
Li Yushi, vice-director of the Chinese Academy of International Trade and Economic Cooperation, expected the faster growth rate for imports to continue this year.
"The country has to buy more products from abroad to feed its roaring economy," Li said.
China's exports will have a hard time this year, partly due to rising trade frictions and the lower tax rebates next year, he said.
Li predicted China's foreign trade situation may reverse into a small deficit in 2004.
The small deficit will not impact China's economy if it keeps a reasonable composition.
In December, imports rose 47.4 percent from a year earlier to US$42.3 billion while exports jumped 50.7 percent to US$48.1 billion, the ministry said.
That created a trade surplus of US$5.73 billion for the month, up 81.2 percent year-on-year.
The big surplus last year is rare in China's foreign trade.
Li contributed the export surge to exporters' rush to sell out their goods before the new tax rebate system starts.
A new tax rebate system, announced by the government last month and put into effect on January 1 this year, would cut the refund rate by an average 3 percent.
Many businesspeople believe the new tax rebate system will increase exporting costs for Chinese manufacturers.
Tariff income hike
In Shanghai, China's chief customs tariff collector said on Friday that the Chinese mainland's customs tariff income reached a record high of 371.157 billion yuan (US$44.95 billion) last year due to fast economic growth.
Mou Xinsheng, commissioner of the General Administration of Customs, said the figure represented an increase of more than 112.095 billion yuan (US$13.5 billion), or 43.27 per cent, over 259.1 billion yuan (US$31.4 billion) in 2002.
Mou attributed the drastic rise to the country's fast and healthy economic growth, which bolstered China's growth of foreign trade import and export.
(China Daily January 10, 2004)