China's exports in October rose at their weakest pace in eight months, underlining official concern about the sector that has dragged on economic growth this year while imports jumped much more than expected.

Customs figures showed Chinese exports rose 15.9 percent in October over the year earlier month, below a forecast of 16.5 percent.

It was the lowest growth since 2.4 percent in February as exporters feel the chill of a weakening global economy and particularly the impact of the downturn in the European Union, China's biggest export market.

Imports though jumped 28.7 percent, well above forecasts for a rise of 23.0 percent and reflective of a buoyant domestic economy.

That was supported by other October data Wednesday showing healthy growth in retail sales and investment in roads and other infrastructure and a sharp drop in inflation.

The October trade surplus came in at $17 billion, much lower than a forecast for $24.9 billion.

The smaller surplus and slowing export growth reflect signs of a slowdown in the Chinese economy -- all point to a soft landing for the economy, given yesterday's CPI numbers that showed price pressures are easing, said Suresh Ramanathan, a currency strategist at CIMB in Kuala Lumpur.

China's leaders have begun talking in recent weeks about fine tuning macroeconomic policy to maintain economic growth, which slowed in the third quarter to 9.1 percent, its weakest in more than two years.

Government officials have expressed concern about weakening external demand for goods from China's factories, even though the sector is on track to expand by an annual 11 percent this year -- in line with official targets.

Exports were a net drag on China's economic growth in the first nine months of this year as the sector felt the chill of a weak global market.

Domestic demand is still resilient and may suggest that the economy would only slow down in a gradual way, said Wang Hu, an analyst at Guotai Junan Securities in Shanghai.

But (there is) no risk of a sharp slowdown.

The trade surplus swelled from $14.5 billion in September. But at $17 billion it is well below the biggest monthly surplus of the year, which was $31.5 billion in July.

(Reporting by Langi Chiang, Kevin Yao; Writing by Neil Fullick; Editing by Dean Yates)