Port Report: China sees decent growth in container volumes for the first quarter

Aside from Lunar New Year slowdown, world’s biggest exporter reports ongoing volume growth despite concerns over trade slowdown.

China experienced growth of 4.9 percent in the box throughput of its top  45 coastal ports in the first quarter 2019 compared to the same period in 2018, according to the Ministry of Transport. China’s coastal box throughput in the first quarter stood at 53.79 million twenty-foot equivalent units (TEU). China’s top 45 coastal ports handled 19.73 million TEU in January; 16.63 million in February and 21.53 million in March.

Throughput at China’s ports is heavily skewed toward a few main facilities. The top five ports by volume handled 33.38 million boxes, accounting for 60.3 percent of the total volume. The top ten ports by volume account for 44.55 million TEU, which is about 80.4 percent of the total.  The remaining 35 ports account for 10.84 million TEU, which is 19.6 percent of the total.

All of the top ten ports experienced a decline in volumes in February compared to January. Box volumes then experienced a recovery in March. This pattern of declining throughput is likely driven by the advent of China’s Lunar New Year, which is a series of seven consecutive days of public holidays.


Shanghai was the top port in China by volume in the first quarter of 2019 with a throughput of 10.42 million TEU, which is 6.9 percent up on prior corresponding period in 2018. Shanghai handled 3.75 million in January, 2.86 million in February and 3.81 million in March.

To put Shanghai’s throughput into context, it is interesting to note that the busiest box port in the U.S. is the Port of Los Angeles with a throughput of 9.5 million TEU for all of 2018. Shanghai handled more boxes in the first three months of this year than the Port of Los Angeles handled in the whole of last year.

Shanghai has a population of about 24.18 million. It is located approximately midway along the Chinese coast and is about 665 miles to the south-east of China’s capital, Beijing. Shanghai is also very roughly opposite the southernmost tip of Japan.


The ports at Ningbo-Zhoushan appear to be counted as one complex. It is also adjacent to Shanghai. But the throughput at Ningbo-Zhoushan is in a distant second place behind Shanghai, with a volume of 6.7 million TEU. That first quarter 2019 volume represents a three percent increase in throughput compared to the same period last year. Ningbo-Zhoushan handled 2.6 million TEU in January; 1.95 million in February and 2.15 million in March.


Shenzhen is part of a mega, seven-city agglomeration with a population of at least 64 million people. One of the immediately adjacent cities is Hong Kong. Shenzhen is about 1,205 miles to the south of Beijing. Shenzhen is also approximately opposite the southern-most tip of the island of Taiwan. Shenzhen handled 6.05 million TEU in the first quarter of 2019, which is about 1.4 percent more than in the first quarter of 2018. It handled 2.41 million TEU in January; 1.6 million in February and 2.05 million in March.


Guangzhou is also part of the same mega seven-city agglomeration as Shenzhen. Guangzhou handled 5.28 million TEU in the first quarter of 2019, which appears to represent substantial growth of 8.8 percent compared  to the prior corresponding period in 2018. Guangzhou handled 1.9 million TEU in January; 1.4 million in February and 1.99 million in March.


Qingdao is a major city of about 6.5 million people on the Yellow Sea coast of the Shandong peninsula (the large peninsula toward the northern part of the country that points toward the two Koreas).  Qingdao handled the fifth-most volume of containers in China in the first quarter of 2019 with a total volume of 4.94 million TEU. Qingdao handled 1.76 million TEU in January; 1.45 million TEU in February and 1.72 million in March.

The other five ports in China’s first-quarter top ten by box- volume are Tianjin (3.78 million TEU; Xiamen 2.69 million TEU; Dalian (2.11 million TEU); Yingkou (1.40 million TEU) and Lianyungang (1.19 million TEU).

China also handled a further 6.53 million TEU at inland river ports in the first quarter of 2019, taking the aggregate  marine and riverine port container throughput volume to 60.3 million TEU.

The Ministry of Transport also provided mass volume data, not just containerized data, on its ports. China handled 2.16 billion tons of freight in the first quarter of 2019 at its coastal ports (as opposed to inland riverine ports), which is a 3.2 percent increase on the first quarter of 2018. These are metric tons which are equivalent to 2,204.6 U.S. pounds. China handled at least 777.92 million tons of cargo in January; 627.44 million tons in February and 752.88 million tons in March.

The Ministry also provided data on how much of the physical cargo accounts for what is described as “foreign trade goods”. About 928.93 million tons of the coastal ports throughput volume is foreign trade goods. That volume accounts for about 43.6 percent of the coastal total and 29.5 percent of the national total waterway freight task (i.e. it includes riverine freight). The the first quarter 2019 volume of foreign trade goods has increased by three percent compared to the prior corresponding period last year.

Readers may not that the volume figures given here do not necessarily and exactly correlate. Discrepancies may arise owing to rounding and also the Chinese combined figures appear to be adjusted each month. For example, adding monthly January data to monthly February data might not exactly match the running total provided by the Chinese authorities – there are examples of the monthly aggregate volume data being adjusted upwards and downwards.

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