China's trade surplus shrank in 2011 as import and export growth slowed sharply, latest official data showed, after domestic tightening measures and global economic turmoil hit consumption.
The figures add to mounting evidence the economy is slowing and will ratchet up pressure on Beijing to further loosen policies to prevent the world's second largest economy from suffering a painful hard landing.
The 2011 trade surplus -- flagged by Commerce Minister Chen Deming last week -- narrowed to $155.14 billion from $181.51 billion in 2010, the customs agency said in a statement, reflecting the turmoil in Europe and the United States.
Exports rose 20.3 percent to $1.899 trillion in 2011, compared with an increase of 31.3 percent in the previous year, while imports rose 24.9 percent to $1.743 trillion, much slower than the 38.8 percent growth in 2010.
Growth in exports is expected to halve this year from 2011 as European woes and a sluggish US economy drag Chinese economic expansion below nine percent for the first time in more than a decade.
Weakening demand for exports will "provide further drag on the Chinese economy at least through the first half of the year," said Alistair Thornton, an analyst at IHS Global Insight in Beijing.
Gross domestic product growth could ease to 8.5 percent in 2012, a senior government researcher said last month, which would be the slowest pace since 2001 when the economy expanded 8.3 percent.
But it would still be within the official annual target of 7-8 percent, a level seen as necessary to create enough jobs to keep a lid on social unrest in the country of more than 1.3 billion people.
Despite the grim outlook, Beijing is likely to remain under pressure for a stronger currency -- a constant bugbear for China's trade partners who argue the yuan is too cheap and gives domestic exporters an unfair trade advantage.
The US Treasury said last month that the yuan is still significantly undervalued, although it refrained from saying it manipulates the currency, which could lead to retaliatory action by Congress.
Other data released by customs on Tuesday showed December's trade surplus widened to $16.52 billion from $14.5 billion in November, while year-on-year growth in exports and imports slowed.
Exports rose 13.4 percent to $174.72 billion, compared with a rise of 13.8 percent in November, while imports increased 11.8 percent to $158.2 billion compared a 22.1 percent rise in the previous month.
In November China cut the amount of money banks must hold in reserve for the first time in three years to spur lending and counter the turmoil overseas, but policymakers appear to have ruled out any major stimulus packages.
Senior Chinese leaders have repeatedly vowed to maintain a "prudent monetary policy and proactive fiscal policy" in 2012, suggesting they will move cautiously to open credit valves to avoid reigniting inflation.