China's manufacturing activity expanded in March for the first time since December, the government said Wednesday, a bright spot as the world's second-largest economy fights a broad slowdown in growth.
The official Purchasing Managers' Index (PMI) released by the National Bureau of Statistics (NBS) came in at 50.1 last month, up from 49.9 in February and the first result showing expansion since a similar 50.1 in December.
The index, which tracks activity in factories and workshops, is considered a key indicator of the health of China's economy, a major driver of global growth. A figure above 50 signals growth, while anything below indicates shrinkage.
The official PMI had shown contraction in January for the first time in more than two years, raising alarm bells for China's growth outlook.
China's overall economy expanded 7.4 percent in 2014, marking a 24-year low. The slowdown has prompted authorities to loosen monetary policy in a bid to put a brake on the weakness.
The central People's Bank of China (PBoC) has lowered benchmark interest rates twice since November and has also cut the amount of funds banks must keep on hand in a bid to boost lending and spark economic activity.
The official PMI figure comes after a closely watched private survey showed manufacturing activity contracting in March at its worst rate in 11 months.
British bank HSBC's preliminary PMI reading for the month came in last week at 49.2, down from a final 50.7 in February. The final March figure was due later Wednesday.
China's leadership is seeking a managed slowdown in gross domestic product (GDP) growth to make it more sustainable and for consumer spending to drive expansion, as in other major economies such as the United States and Japan.
Too steep a slowdown, however, could cost jobs and sow discontent, a key concern of the ruling Communist Party, which places prime emphasis on social stability.