ByaDavid Franklin a-aMarket Strategist, Sprott Asset Management2013 has been the year that China has lit the physical gold market on fire; however you would never know from the metal's price performance. While the price of gold has fallen more than 20%, bullion flow to the East has been nothing short of spectacular. Recently published data supports our presumption that physical gold was indeed flowing from ETF liquidations with a significant amount heading East. We have written much this year on the gold market and the flow of the yellow metal to China. A quick review of the titles of our missives highlights our fascination with gold market developments over the past year. Many of these articles outline the massive shift in the gold trade from West to East. But it was in our piece entitled " Redemptions in the GLD are, oddly enough, Bullish for Gold" where we first postulated that elevated premiums for gold in China, the so-called 'Shanghai premium', were driving redemptions in the world's largest gold ETF with the physical gold being used to satiate Asian demand. We asked the question in July, when we wondered what the link between China's increasing physical gold deliveries and the drop in gold inventories within the COMEX and GLD ETF was, but any proof remained elusive. Last week we had our first confirmation that the drop in ETF inventory was indeed tied to Chinese physical buying; in fact they were joined-at-the-hip. UK gold exports to Switzerland, Europe's major bullion refining hub, jumped to 1,016.3 tonnes in the first eight months of this year from 85.1 tonnes over the same period in 2012. This is a staggering increase. Over the same period, investor withdrawals from gold ETFs, have totalled nearly 670 tonnes according to data from Bloomberg. And can you guess the location of their vaults? The world's largest gold ETF, New York-listed SPDR Gold Shares, stores its gold holdings in HSBC's London vault, as do other leading ETF operators such as ETF Securities. Further, the UK has no commercial-scale gold mines, but London is the center of the global gold market, with bankers estimating that some 10,000 tonnes are held in the city's vaults, including at the Bank of England, largely by investors and central banks.aThis is the perfect locale to find a significant mass of gold in a short period of time. Following the path of this gold, we find that the two largest exporters of gold to Hong Kong this year have been Switzerland and the United States. From these statistics it is clear that physical gold was redeemed out of the largest ETF's, shipped to Switzerland for vaulting or refining purposes with a significant portion sent on to Hong Kong for Chinese consumption. In May of this year, we calculated that more than one third of China's import growth has been driven solely from its citizens' desire to own gold and not from a growing domestic economy. Recent trade data suggests that this trend has not abated. Of course this begs the question to what end is China importing this large amount of gold? Inflation protection for its citizens? Backing their currency with gold? Deploying their immense foreign exchange reserves into a currency that is no other's obligation? These are all possible explanations.