SHANGHAI — China’s trade surplus grew to $18.4 billion in April, indicating the country is struggling to wean its economy off exports and bolster domestic growth.

Exports for the month rose nearly 5 percent to $163.3 billion, while imports increased only 0.3 percent to $144.8 billion, according to data released Thursday by the country’s customs administration.

China also posted a trade surplus in March of $5.3 billion, with export growth outpacing that of imports.

From January to April, China’s imports and exports totaled $1.2 trillion, an increase of 6 percent from the same period last year. Over the first four months of the year, exports rose nearly 7 percent while imports grew 5 percent compared to the same period in 2011.

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China’s customs administration said that bilateral trade was particularly weak with the European Union. From January to April, trade between China and the EU increased only 0.3 percent to $170.5 billion.

Chinese leaders announced earlier this year that cooling off the country’s overheated economy would be a top priority. In March, Premier Wen Jiabao set a gross domestic growth target of 7.5 percent for 2012, which was the first time the government has lowered its annual gross domestic product expansion forecast below 8 percent since 2005. He also said the boosting domestic consumption would be a key factor in maintaining stable economic growth.

In the first three months of 2012, China’s economy grew by 8.1 percent, a growth rate that was down from the 8.9 percent in the previous quarter. 

April’s trade figures indicate that Chinese consumers are saving more than they are spending as the country is still struggling with high inflation rates as well as a cooling property sector, which has historically been one of the major growth engines for the economy.

Stock markets across the region fell in the wake of Thursday’s economic news, with Hong Kong shares down for the sixth day in a row and mainland exchanges showing moderate declines.

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