China has started unloading a small number of Australian coal shipments despite an unofficial import ban, analysts said, in a move underscoring the intensity of the power crunch facing the world’s second-largest economy. Nick Ristic, the lead dry cargo analyst at Braemar ACM Shipbroking, said a handful of Australian cargoes waiting outside Chinese ports since a ban came into force a year ago had headed into berth last month and draft change had been observed, indicating that the coal had been unloaded. He said 450,000 tonnes of coal had been discharged.

Energy research company Kpler also said a total of five vessels waiting offshore had discharged 383,000 tonnes of Australian thermal coal into China last month.

It is possible the discharged coal had been resold to other countries, but traders said this was unlikely because of signals from Chinese authorities that it would be allowed to clear customs.

Last year Beijing reportedly ordered state-owned energy companies and steel mills to stop importing Australian coal immediately, in a blow to the countrys A$55bn ($39bn) a year coal export industry.

Australia shipped 35m tonnes of thermal coal to China in 2020 and closer to 50m tonnes in 2018 and 2019, according to Argus Media, a commodity price assessment group. After November 2020, overall coal exports to the Asian nation dropped to “effectively zero”, according to Wood Mackenzie.

Recommended But since then, Chinese provinces have been hit with power rationing so severe that in some places factories have been allowed to operate for only two days a week, threatening economic growth and the global supply chain.

On Tuesday, China’s banking and China manufacturing activity contracts as power shortages bite insurance regulator called on financial institutions┬áto increase their risk tolerance for loans to coal plants “to ensure that the people live warmly through the winter”. It also banned banks from withdrawing loans to plants and mines that were otherwise in compliance and warned them against speculating on bulk commodities including coal and steel.

Lara Dong, who leads Greater China power and renewables research at IHS Markit, said the move to allow a few shipments to start being delivered was unlikely to be a sign of a broader policy reversal. “I see it as a sign of policy loosening, it doesn’t seem to mean a big difference in coal imports from Australia,” she said.

The shortages, which have also hit some household users, gathered steam in large part owing to coal supply shortages and higher domestic and international prices. This has made coal-fired power generation uneconomic because of price controls.

The most actively traded coal contract on the Zhengzhou Commodity Exchange was near a record high of Rmb1,393.60, or $216 a tonne, on Thursday, the last day before a week-long public holiday in China. It has risen by almost 75 percent in the past month.

Provinces including Jilin have in recent days called for increased imports of coal from Indonesia, Russia and Mongolia. Reports on Monday said China’s Zhejiang province had brought in its first shipment of thermal coal from Kazakhstan.