The Associated Press
In this July 1, 2015 photo, trucks move shipping containers in the container pool of a seaport in Qingdao in eastern China's Shandong province. China's September imports fell by an unexpectedly wide margin of 20.4 percent from a year ago in a new sign of weakness in the world's second-largest economy, while exports also contracted, customs data showed Tuesda, Oct. 13, 2015. (Chinatopix via AP) CHINA OUT

BEIJING — China's imports fell by an unexpectedly wide margin in September in a new sign of weakness in the world's second-largest economy, data showed Tuesday.

Imports plunged 20.4 percent from a year earlier to $145.2 billion, customs data showed, worse than August's 5.5 percent decline and analysts' expectations of a decline of about 15 percent. Exports shrank 3.7 percent, though that was an improvement from the previous month's 13.8 percent decline.

Weakness in trade has fueled doubts Beijing can hit its economic growth target this year of about 7 percent.

Much of China's slowdown over the past five years was self-imposed as the ruling Communist Party tries to steer the economy to more self-sustaining growth based on domestic consumption. But the past year's unexpectedly deep decline has raised fears of politically dangerous job losses.

The government has cut interest rate five times since November and pumped money into the economy through spending on public works construction. Economic growth held steady in the quarter ending in July at 7 percent. But that was the lowest rate since the 2008 global crisis and analysts said a Chinese stock market boom that pushed up activity in financial industries concealed weakness in other sectors.

"Import growth appears to have come in weaker than expected," Julian Evans-Pritchard of Capital Economics said in a report.

"This suggests that domestic demand may have softened," though the decline partly reflects lower prices for imports, he said. "Import volumes are holding up much better."

China's global trade surplus nearly doubled from a year earlier to $60.3 billion.

The country's trade surplus with the European Union was $14 billion and that with the United States $26.5 billion.

Communist leaders are trying to reduce reliance on exports and investment to drive growth, but their plans call for trade to hold steady to protect millions of manufacturing jobs.

For the first nine months of the year, exports are down 1.9 percent and imports by 15.3 percent. That makes it unlikely Beijing can meet its trade growth target of about 6 percent for the year.

Some analysts had suggested September trade would improve over August because that month's activity was disrupted by an explosion in Tianjin, one of China's busiest ports, and government-ordered factory shutdowns for a military parade in Beijing.

General Administration of Customs of China (in Chinese): www.customs.gov.cn