The country's apparent oil demand was a cumulative 87.80 million metric tons for the January-March period, down 4.8% from 92.23 million metric tons in the first quarter of 2008. The decline contrasts with an increase of more than 8% in Chinese oil demand in the first quarter of 2008 versus 2007.
The rapid growth in Chinese oil consumption to fuel its economic growth in recent years has underpinned a rally in global demand since 2004, and has been widely regarded as one of the factors responsible for sending global crude oil prices rocketing to historic highs in July 2008.
As recession in major economies dampens oil appetite, China is once again in the spotlight, with market observers watching for any signs that the nation's oil needs will put a floor under sliding global consumption figures.
China's export-dependent economy posted a 6.1% growth rate in the first quarter of this year, compared with a 9% year-on-year expansion for all of 2008. Gross domestic product (GDP) growth in 2007 was an even stronger 13%.
Chinese refiners collectively processed 29.37 million metric tons (6.91 million barrels per day) of crude in March, marginally up from the 29.17 million metric tons refined in the corresponding month a year ago, data from the National Bureau of Statistics showed.
Figures released by the country's General Administration of Customs indicated a 12.9% drop in net product imports in March compared with a year ago at 1.89 million metric tons.
"Chinese crude imports and refinery operations picked up in March from a trough in January and February, consistent with a corresponding up-tick in some of the country's economic indicators last month," said Vandana Hari, Platts Asia news director. "China's export shipments declined 16.8% in March, but it was a smaller slide than the 25% drop reported for January and February. Retail sales in the first quarter were said to have risen nearly 15% from a year ago, on the back of government policies to boost domestic consumption. Whether Beijing's massive stimulus package sustains this trend in the coming months, remains to be seen."
Platts calculates China's apparent or implied oil demand on the basis of crude throughput volumes at the domestic refineries and net oil product imports, as reported by the General Administration of Customs and the National Bureau of Statistics. The government releases data on imports, exports, domestic crude production and refinery throughput data, but does not put out official figures on the country's actual oil consumption.