Growth in China's manufacturing sector unexpectedly slowed in April as new export orders fell, raising fresh doubts about the strength of the economy after a disappointing first quarter.
The official purchasing managers' index (PMI) fell to 50.6 in April from an 11-month high in March of 50.9. Analysts had expected the April PMI to be 51.0.
The pull back on the official PMI mirrored a similar decline in a preliminary HSBC PMI last week, suggesting China's exports engine faces headwinds from the euro zone recession and sluggish growth in the United States.
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China's new government has signaled it will step up infrastructure investment, which analysts said will provide support for the economy in the second quarter.
"Overall, my general feel is that China is growing but slower than people expected say a month ago," said Alvin Pontoh, economist at TDSecurities in Singapore.
"But I don't think this is reason for alarm... this is probably what the new administration is looking for. Structurally, China cannot grow at 9 or 10 percent any more, so over the next few years, you'd reasonably expect growth to edge lower to say 7 percent or so".
A string of global data, including lower than expected U.S. economic growth figures, has dented optimism seen at the start of the year that the world economy was picking up.
Market reaction to the PMI was muted as many countries in Asia and Europe are marking May 1 Labour Day holiday. China's markets are closed and will reopen on Thursday.
Benchmark three-month copper slipped and weighed on mining stocks in Australia following the PMI figures. The Australian and New Zealand dollars held their ground.
The official PMI figures showed a new orders sub-index fell to 51.7 in April from 52.3 in March, holding above 50 which separates expansion from contraction compared with a month earlier. However, the new export orders index fell to 48.6 from 50.9 in March, suggesting they were shrinking.
The input price sub index fell to 40.1 in April, its lowest in at least four years.
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"The dip in April PMI shows that the foundation for China's economic recovery is still not solid," Zhang Liqun, an economist at the Development Research Centre, a top government think tank in Beijing, said in an emailed statement accompanying the index.
"All these show the possibility for China's growth to slow slightly in the future. We must work to stabilize domestic demand and make our economic recovery more sustainable," he said.
HSBC's preliminary PMI for April fell to 50.5 from 51.6 in March as new export orders shrank. The final reading is scheduled to be published on Thursday.