Chinese imports have fallen for a seventh straight month in May while exports also sank, official data shows, as the world’s second biggest economy shows protracted weakness despite government easing measures.

Monday’s disappointing figures also come as leaders try to transform the economy to one where growth is driven by consumer spending rather than by government investment and exports.

Imports slumped 17.6 per cent year-on-year to $US131.26 billion ($A172.14 billion), the General Administration of Customs said in a statement.

In yuan terms imports fell 18.1 per cent, exports decreased 2.8 per cent and the trade surplus expanded 65.0 per cent.

The decline was much sharper than the median forecast of a 10 per cent fall in a Bloomberg News poll of economists and followed April’s 16.2 per cent drop.

‘The May trade data … suggest both external and domestic demand remain weak,’ said Julian Evans-Pritchard, an analyst with research company Capital Economics, in a note.

Exports dropped for the third consecutive month, falling 2.5 per cent to $190.75 billion, Customs said, although that was better than the median estimate of a four per cent fall in the Bloomberg survey.

The sharp decrease in imports meant the trade surplus expanded 65.6 per cent year-on-year to $59.49 billion.

The figures provided further evidence that frailty in the Chinese economy, a key driver of world growth, has extended into the current quarter despite intensified government stimulus measures.

Gross domestic product (GDP) grew 7.4 per cent in 2014, the lowest rate in nearly a quarter of a century, while the new year has shown few signs of a reversal in the slowing trend.

GDP expanded 7.0 per cent in January-March, the worst quarterly result in six years and weaker than the final three months of 2014.

Beijing has set the target for the economy to grow by ‘about seven per cent’ this year, lower than its target for 2014, which was about 7.5 per cent.

British bank HSBC’s Purchasing Managers’ Index (PMI), which tracks activity in factories and workshops and is seen as an important barometer of economic health, contracted for the third straight month in May and economists expect the shrinkage to extend into mid-year.

Chinese leaders have said they are ready to accept slower but more sustainable growth. But authorities have stepped up stimulus efforts since late last year to try to ensure the slowdown does not get out of hand.

The central People’s Bank of China has cut interest rates three times since November and twice reduced the amount of cash banks must keep in reserve, along with other measures to inject liquidity into the market.

It has also lowered minimum downpayment levels on second houses and shortened the ownership period during which sellers are liable to a 20-per cent capital gains tax on properties other than their main home, in an attempt to support the real estate market.

ANZ economists attributed the slump in imports this year to lower commodity prices and the ‘exchange rate effect’, suggesting the impact of a stronger Chinese yuan.

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