Total handling stood at 18.1m teu in the first month of 2016, up by only 0.3% compared with the year-ago level. That is the lowest growth rate since 2010, data from China Ports & Harbours Association showed.
Changjiang Securities analyst Han Yichao said in a note: “The main reasons are: on the one hand, the softening economy in China’s largest trade partner the US dampened demand for Chinese export cargoes.
“On the other hand, a murky world economy has fuelled more protectionism, and hence hit global trade growth.”
China’s exports and imports slid 11.2% and 18.8% year on year in January in dollar terms, largely below analysts’ expectations.
Not surprisingly, several Chinese leading ports recorded sharp contractions in box throughput during the same period.
Shanghai, home to the world's busiest container harbour, saw January liftings volume fall 5.8% against the same period last year, to about 2.98m teu.
The port of Dalian was hit by a 9.1% drop in box handling, while Shenzhen and Guangzhou were down 0.8% and 1.3%.
However, some players managed to improve their performance substantially against the difficult market.
The port of Ningbo-Zhoushan posted a 6% increase in container throughput last month, having replaced Hong Kong as the world's fourth-busiest box port in 2015. The port of Qingdao also had a 6.3% rise year on year.
In general, ports in northern China appeared to have fared better than their southern peers. Throughput in the Bohai Rim edged up by 0.62%, while the volumes in Yangtze River Delta and Pearl River Delta dipped 0.31% and 0.09% respectively.