China's December imports came in below market expectations, with a 4.5% year-on-year growth, while exports beat forecasts to rise 11% year-on-year, official data showed Friday.
China reports its trade growth cooled in December in a sign of weaker global and domestic demand, but last year's total exports rose 7.9 percent over 2016 while imports were up 15.9 percent.
The government is planning to announce GDP data for 2017 next week.
China can no longer rely on exports to grow its economy as it has done over the past 30 years, according to Zhang, because the model is now unsustainable and would put too much strain on ties with the rest of the world.
Commodities imports were mixed, with copper purchases down 8.2 percent year-on-year by volume in December while coal and natural gas imports were up.More news: Rainy Thursday will give way to sleet and snow on Friday
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China's exports to North Korea also declined, down 23.4 percent from a year ago to $260 million in December, Huang Songping, customs spokesman said in a briefing in Beijing.
The world's second-largest economy reported strong overall trade data for 2017.
China's global trade surplus stood at $422.5 billion, down from 2016's $486 billion.
Economists say rising trade friction is a key risk for China.
President Donald Trump has repeatedly signaled tougher action on what he calls unfair practices that have lead to a massive trade deficit with China.