HONG KONG — As China’s leaders have been preoccupied with a political struggle leading up to a once-in-a-decade leadership change this autumn, there are increasing signs that the Chinese economy may be running into trouble.
China announced Thursday that growth in imports had unexpectedly come to a screeching halt in April — rising just 0.3 percent from the same period a year earlier, compared with expectations for an 11 percent increase. Businesses across the country appeared to lose much of their appetite for products as varied as iron ore and computer chips.
China has been the largest single contributor to global economic growth in recent years, and a sustained slowdown in its economy could pose problems for many other countries. Particularly exposed are countries that export commodities like iron ore and oil and rely on demand from China’s steel mills and ever-growing ranks of car owners.
Exports, a cornerstone of China’s economic growth over the past three decades, grew 4.9 percent last month — half as much as economists had expected. And a slump in new orders over the past month at the Canton Fair, China’s main marketplace for exporters and foreign buyers, suggests that overseas shipments by the world’s second-biggest economy, after that of the United States, may not recover quickly.
Growth in other sectors appears to be slowing, too, particularly in real estate. Soufun Holdings, a Chinese real estate data provider, released figures Monday showing that residential land sales in the country’s 20 largest cities had fallen 92 percent last week from the week before, as declining prices for apartments have left developers short of cash and reluctant to start further projects.
In a series of interviews over the past week, bankers and senior executives from provinces all over China, in a range of light and heavy industries, cited a broad deterioration in business conditions. Two of them said that some tax agencies in smaller cities had been telling companies to inflate their sales and profits to make local economic growth look less weak than it really was, while reassuring the companies that their actual tax bills would be left unchanged.