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.

The fall in imports worsened from August's 5.5 percent contraction, defying stimulus efforts aimed at halting an economic slowdown, customs data showed Tuesday. 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.

"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 part of the decline is due to a drop in global commodity prices, which makes foreign goods cheaper, he said. "Import volumes are holding up much better."

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