Foreign direct investment in China fell in September, marking the eighth fall in nine months and counterbalancing other more upbeat economic news.
The Ministry of Commerce also cautioned that faster export growth might not be sustainable, given the still gloomy global economic environment.
The latest foreign investment data and comments cast a cloud over the rosier picture painted by the third-quarter economic indicators released on Thursday.
While economists broadly agree that the worst is behind the world's second-largest economy, some analysts argue that the strength of the recovery might be overrated.
China's FDI for the first nine months was US$83.4 billion, 3.8 per cent lower than a year earlier, according to the ministry's data. FDI in September fell 6.8 per cent year on year, a sharper drop than the 1.43 per cent decline in August. Foreign direct investment has fallen every month this year except May, when the growth was almost flat.
The figures come as companies such as Hon Hai Precision Industry, which assembles Apple's iPhones and iPads, are considering expanding in countries such as Brazil and Indonesia, which compete with China on lower-cost labour and transport.
At the same time, overseas shipments in September grew 9.9 per cent compared with August's 2.7 per cent, in part driven by demand for Christmas. But Commerce Ministry spokesman Shen Danyang voiced caution about a recent jump in export growth.
"We can't immediately draw a conclusion that China's foreign trade has stabilised and recovered simply based on data from one month," Shen said yesterday.
"The current foreign trade environment remains complex and severe, and we continue to face many difficulties in expanding external demand."
Challenges included the still grim economic outlook in Europe, the territorial dispute with Japan over the Diaoyu Islands in the East China Sea, and trade frictions with the West, including the United States.
The third-quarter data boosted market confidence that the economy has bottomed out. Growth in industrial production, fixed-asset investment, exports, and retail sales all accelerated in September year on year.
Gross domestic product grew 7.4 per cent in the third quarter, down on the 7.6 per cent growth in the second quarter.
But the quarter-on-quarter growth accelerated to 9.1 per cent in the third quarter on an annualised basis and after seasonal adjustment. That compared with an 8.2 per cent gain in the second quarter and 6.1 per cent in the first, based on statistics bureau data.
Standard Chartered said the scale of the rebound as reflected in the official data "seems too good to be true". It said its calculations suggested a much milder quarter-on-quarter rebound of 7.7 per cent.
Power output growth last month slowed to 1.5 per cent year on year from 2.7 per cent in August, which also indicated still-weak demand, it said.
The bank added that the accuracy of the official fixed-asset investment growth was "debatable" because local authorities could "easily manipulate" the data before submitting it to Beijing.
London-based Capital Economics analysts were also sceptical too about the strength of the rebound. Its calculations pointed to a 6.5 per cent annualised expansion in the third quarter from the second.
Investment bank Goldman Sachs said "the rebound in retail sales data should be treated cautiously". The Mid-Autumn Festival and National Day breaks started earlier than last year, which likely distorted the consumption data, it said.