Beijing - China's exports fell more than expected in May as global demand remained stubbornly weak, but imports beat forecasts, adding to hopes that the economy may be stabilising.

Exports fell 4.1 percent from a year earlier, the General Administration of Customs reported, saying the foreign trade environment remains a challenge.

Imports dropped 0.4 percent from a year earlier, the smallest decline since they turned negative in November 2014, likely reflecting higher commodities prices but also suggesting that domestic demand has picked up as Beijing increases spending on big infrastructure projects to support growth.

That resulted in a trade surplus of $49.98 billion in May, versus forecasts of $58 billion and April's $45.6 billion.

Economists polled by Reuters had expected May exports to fall 3.6 percent, after a 1.8 percent decline in April, and expected imports to fall 6 percent, following April's 10.9 percent decline.

China's official manufacturing activity survey last week showed signs of steadying in May but remained weak amid soft demand at home and abroad, with new orders expanding more slowly and growth in export orders stalling.

The trade data is the first to be released by China for May.

March indicators were upbeat, sparking hopes that the economy was perking up, but April was less rosy, raising concerns that the spring bounce may be short-lived.

(Reporting by Elias Glenn; Editing by Kim Coghill)