By  on January 10, 2012

BEIJING — China’s politically problematic trade surplus narrowed again last year, marking the lowest level in six years, according to government data released today.

Despite what might seem good news for China’s trade partners, the commerce numbers also indicated that domestic consumption, a factor critical to China’s promise to slash the surplus, may be on the decline. The annual trade data were released just hours before U.S. Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner arrived in Beijing for talks on currency and other trade issues.

According to the General Administration of Customs, the trade surplus for all of 2011 was $155 billion, down 6.4 percent from a year earlier and the lowest rate since 2005. But December actually recorded a surprising gain in the surplus, with imports to China down sharply.

On its Web site, the customs agency lauded the new numbers, saying, “China’s foreign trade is, in general, heading towards a balanced structure.”

The numbers, despite closing the gap, underlie ongoing speculation about a major economic slowdown in the world’s second-largest economy. Along with the decline in trade, China has seen a dramatic slowdown in manufacturing output in recent months and domestic consumption has not increased as quickly as many hoped.

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