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China's Base Metals Imports Decline

China's voracious hunger for commodities -- copper and iron ore, especially -- eased in January.
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BEIJING (TheStreet) -- The world's most ravenous consumer of raw materials reported Wednesday that the rate of its intake slowed sharply in January.

But that's only if you compare the rate to December, when China recorded the greatest volume of commodities imports of any four-week period in its history -- and probably in the history of human commerce itself.

The headliner item since last year has been China's ferocious hunger for iron ore. Imports for the key steel ingredient reached the heretofore unprecedented level of 62.16 million metric tons in December.

In January, according to China's customs ministry, ore imports fell 25% to 46.62 million metric tons.

It's not just the iron-ore producers who have received a boost from China: Copper giant

Freeport McMoran

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recently made note of its

dependancy on demand from the People's Republic

as markets Stateside remain depressed.

China's custom's agency said copper imports fell 21% to about 290,000 metric tons in January.

The reason for the declines? Some analysts believe it's the recent efforts at credit tightening as China's central bankers look to tamp down any percolating asset bubbles. Others cite the seasonal slowdown that occurs as the Chinese New Year holiday approaches.

The January data comes at an active moment for the big three iron-ore miners --

BHP Billiton

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Rio Tinto

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(VALE) - Get Vale SA Report

-- who are gearing up for a

long, hot negotiating season with China's steel industry

. The April 2010 iron ore price contract is at stake, with a low-grade commercial Cold War as a backdrop.

On Wednesday, Rio Tinto executives were indicted on industrial espionage charges


Also Wednesday,

BHP Billiton released better-than-expected earnings

, while company executives touted emerging economies (including China) as the true growth story, and cautioned about the weak recoveries among the developed nations.

And it's not over for Big Miner earnings. After the bell Wednesday, Vale will report its latest financial results, while Rio Tinto is on deck for Thursday.

-- Written by Scott Eden in New York

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>>Rio-BHP Iron Ore Deal Gets Heat from EU

Scott Eden has covered business -- both large and small -- for more than a decade. Prior to joining, he worked as a features reporter for Dealmaker and Trader Monthly magazines. Before that, he wrote for the Chicago Reader, that city's weekly paper. Early in his career, he was a staff reporter at the Dow Jones News Service. His reporting has appeared in The Wall Street Journal, Men's Journal, the St. Petersburg (Fla.) Times, and the Believer magazine, among other publications. He's also the author of Touchdown Jesus (Simon & Schuster, 2005), a nonfiction book about Notre Dame football fans and the business and politics of big-time college sports. He has degrees from Notre Dame and Washington University in St. Louis.