China swung back to trade surplus in April after posting a rare deficit the previous month, official data showed Wednesday, but analysts cautioned the better-than-expected figures may not reflect reality.
The world's second-largest economy recorded an $18.2 billion trade surplus last month, Customs said in a statement, higher than the median forecast of $15.6 billion in a poll of 12 economists by Dow Jones Newswires.
April imports increased 16.8 percent year-on-year to $168.9 billion, Customs said, while exports rose 14.7 percent to $187.1 billion. In March, the country had posted a deficit of $880 million.
With the eurozone mired in a debt crisis and US growth still unsteady, many hope that the Chinese economy can be a driver of a global recovery. But statistics have painted a mixed picture for it in recent months.
Economists were sceptical about the trade figures, suggesting they were driven by capital inflows rather than the effects of a rebound in the real economy.
"We believe the strong trade growth is not indicative of a growth recovery," said Zhang Zhiwei, a Hong Kong-based economist with Nomura International, said in a research note.
Importers and exporters may have overstated their business to seek to evade Chinese government controls on capital movements and channel funds into the country, he said.
Chinese officials vowed earlier this week to clamp down on misreporting, and Zhang said "trade growth will likely slow" in future months as a result.
Royal Bank of Scotland economist Louis Kuijs estimated China's exports rose only 5.7 percent year-on-year in April after adjusting for discrepancies between data from China and figures from the importing markets.
"Subdued actual export growth in April points to sluggish global demand and the impact of (yuan) exchange rate appreciation," he said in a report.
But "reasonable import growth suggests domestic demand has held up better so far," he added.
China grew at its slowest pace in 13 years in 2012, with gross domestic product expanding 7.8 percent in the face of weakness at home and in key overseas markets.
There was a rebound to 7.9 percent in the final quarter of 2012, raising hopes of recovery, but in the first three months of this year growth slowed to 7.7 percent.
Other indicators released recently also pointed to further weakness in the Chinese economy.
The official purchasing managers' index (PMI), a widely watched indicator of the health of the Chinese economy, slowed to 50.6 in April from 50.9 the month before.
Industrial output, which is crucial to job creation, also slowed in the first quarter to 9.5 percent, from 10 percent in October-December.
China's total trade grew just 6.2 percent last year, well below the official target of about 10 percent.
The government has set a growth goal of eight percent for two-way trade this year. Customs said total trade increased by 14 percent year-on-year to $1.33 trillion in the January-April period, when China had a trade surplus of $61.0 billion.