On Friday the central bank published a report warning of further economic weakness, but argued the economy needed a retooled growth engine, instead of short-term stimulus.
Economists also blame a strong yuan for the export weakness, with ANZ Research estimating the currency's nominal effective exchange rate has risen by 13.5 percent since June 2014.
Analysts say Beijing has been keeping its yuan strong to wean its economy off low-end export manufacturing. A strong yuan policy also supports domestic buying power, helps Chinese firms to borrow and invest abroad, and encourages foreign firms and governments to increase their use of the currency.
"These factors suggest that China's exports will continue to face strong headwinds," Liu Ligang and Louis Lam said in an ANZ Research note on Saturday, adding that they doubted Beijing would hit its trade growth target of 6 percent for this year.
China's weak import figure partly reflects weak commodity prices paid to trading partners such as Australia, which ships coal and iron ore to China. Volume imports of most major commodities were higher than expected, as Chinese industry took advantage of the lower prices to restock on raw materials.
Coal deliveries in particular rose strongly in July, up 28.1 percent, though commodity analysts said that prospects for the market remained dim overall.
Stephen Koukoulas, managing director of Australian consultancy Markets Economics, said the fall in commodity prices was a major concern for the Australian and New Zealand economies, which both rely heavily on demand from China.
"Probably the volumes are ok but the prices that are being paid are hugely lower. We have got a real concern there for the future levels of the Aussie dollar," Koukoulas said.
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