China's principal ports handled the equivalent of 3.28 million 20-foot containers, or TEUs, in the first half of this year, an increase of 24 percent over the 1994 period and perhaps the fastest growth anywhere.

The country's international container volume rose 32 percent last year over 1993 to 5.07 million TEUs, figures from the Ministry of Communications show.Song Dexing, a deputy division chief with the ministry, said China's annual growth in international container movements over the past three years averaged 29 percent. China has 42 dedicated containership berths with aggregate annual capacity of 4.26 million TEUs.

Mr. Song said volume is expected to triple by the end of the decade.

His forecast does not include Hong Kong - the world's top boxport at 11.1 million TEUs last year - over which China regains control in mid-1997.

Among the world's 20 busiest boxports, Hong Kong also showed the fastest growth last year at 22.4 percent. Volume so far this year remains in strong double digits, leading officials and terminal operators to forecast nearly 13 million TEUs for the year.

Shanghai, the largest port in China, handled 840,000 TEUs in the first half, an increase of 29 percent over the 1994 period. For all of last year, it moved 1.19 million TEUs, up 28 percent year on year.

Capacity at Shanghai "fell slightly behind demand" in the first part of this year, Mr. Song said, thanks to rapid economic expansion in eastern China.

Shanghai continues to convert older wharfs into box types and generally expand harbor facilities. About $1 billion is earmarked over the next 15 years to improve conditions, especially to dredge the approach channel.

Mr. Song said Shanghai expects to become one of the world's top 20 "this year or next. However, infrastructure facilities still lag behind the rising container transport demand, requiring more spending to bridge the gap."

The port processed 165 million metric tons of goods last year, ranking it third in the world, Chinese figures show. That total was down from the record 176 million tons of 1993.

Shanghai, which is also China's largest commercial center, has seen cargo volumes decline since the end of last year. Industry people say it simply can't cope with demand fueled by the country's rapid economic growth.

In August, Shanghai handled 13.5 million metric tons, up 21 percent on the year-earlier month but down 2.5 percent from July. Its tally of 125,000 TEUs was 21 percent greater than a year earlier, but 15 percent off the July figure.

The country's six principal sea gateways are forecast by the ministry to process about 6 million TEUs this year. In addition to Shanghai, they are Dalian, Tianjin and Qingdao in the north, Ningbo near Shanghai and southern Guangzhou near Hong Kong.

The six accounted for 2.7 million TEUs in the first half, a gain of 14 percent on the 1994 period.