Mainland import growth lagged the expansion in exports for the first time in six months last month, fuelling a record trade surplus and concerns that domestic consumption is slumping. The country imported US$107.1 billion worth of goods last month, 21.3 per cent more than a year earlier but below August's 23.1 per cent rise, China Customs said yesterday. Overseas shipments grew a forecast-beating 21.5 per cent to US$136.4 billion last month from August's 21.1 per cent surge, helping achieve a record surplus of US$29.3 billion, up 20 per cent year on year. Stripping out price and seasonal effects, economists said the September figures showed imports were easing at a sharper rate than exports on lower commodity prices. They added that export-driven China was not immune from subprime-hit economies in the United States and the European Union, the country's biggest export markets. Demand for everything from apparel to heavy machinery and electronics is expected to be hit hardest during this quarter and the first quarter of next year. 'Exports were resilient last month, but the growth rate will slow to single digits by the first quarter of next year on the back of lower capital expenditure by European and US companies,' Societe Generale's chief Asia economist Glenn Maguire said. 'China's economy is slowing, but certainly not falling off a cliff.' He attributed last month's lower import increase to falling commodity prices, particularly crude oil. A Goldman Sachs report said soft import growth and a swelling surplus were consistent with signs of weakening domestic demand. In the first nine months of this year, exports increased 22.3 per cent from a year earlier to US$1.07 trillion, while imports jumped 29 per cent to US$893.1 billion. This left the surplus 2.6 per cent lower at US$180.9 billion. Total trade was on the verge of breaking through the US$2 trillion mark, with the nine-month total expanding 25.2 per cent to US$1.96 trillion. The EU was the mainland's largest trading partner, with trade rising 25.9 per cent to US$322.5 billion between January and last month but still below the average monthly growth of 30 per cent. Trade with the mainland's second-biggest partner, the US, climbed 13.8 per cent to US$251.5 billion, compared with 15.6 per cent growth in the same period last year. The decline stemmed from an 11.2 per cent increase in exports to the US, compared with 15.8 per cent growth a year earlier. JP Morgan economist Wang Qian said falling overseas shipments would see more exporters go under and joblessness increase, compounding problems for the battered stock and property markets. 'This is a critical period for the mainland economy as its future largely depends on how fast policymakers react to the global financial crisis,' Ms Wang said. 'They may roll out more fiscal measures to help exporters.' The National Development and Reform Commission yesterday was reportedly considering further measures to bail out textile and garment manufacturers after restoring value-added tax rebates to the industry in July. In the first nine months of this year, garment exports grew only 1.8 per cent.