China's exports plunged by an unexpectedly large 18 per cent last month, possibly denting hopes trade will help drive the slowing economy while communist leaders push ambitious promised reforms.

Exports declined to US$114.1 billion ($134.7 billion) while imports rose a stronger-than-expected 10.1 per cent to US$137.1 billion, customs data shows.

Weakness in key European and US export markets could raise the risk of politically dangerous job losses in trade-reliant industries that employ millions of workers at a time when communist leaders want to focus on restructuring China's economy.

China's official 2014 economic growth target of 7.5 per cent, announced last week by Premier Li Keqiang, assumes trade also will grow by 7.5 per cent. But customs data show combined imports and exports so far this year have shrunk by 4.8 per cent.


The ruling Communist Party is trying to reduce reliance on trade and investment to drive growth by promoting domestic consumption and giving market forces a "decisive role" in the economy.

A surge in job losses could force them to shore up growth with a stimulus based on state-led investment, setting back their reform effort.