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China's factory activity shrank by the most in nearly three years in January as new orders slumped further and output fell, a private survey showed, reinforcing fears a slowdown in the world's second-largest economy is deepening.

The official manufacturing purchasing managers' index (PMI) was at a score of 49.5 points, higher than the 49.4 points in December, data from the National Bureau of Statistics showed on Thursday. The 50-mark separates growth from contraction on a monthly basis.

China reported its weakest economic expansion in 28 years in 2018, and growth is expected to slow further.

The composite PMI, which covers both manufacturing and services activity, ticked up to 53.2 in January, from December's 52.6.

Eastern China remained the sectors' largest revenue contributor by earning 6.87 trillion yuan (1.02 trillion USA dollars), accounting for 77 percent of the total revenue a year ago. But gains were capped by weak manufacturing data for China.

Investors shouldn't read into the better services PMI number, however, since all signs are pointing to a loss of momentum to China's economy. Other sub-indices, such as new orders, continued to decline as demand slumps.

However, veteran China watchers typically advise taking its data early in the year with a pinch of salt, suspecting the trends may be distorted by the timing of the Lunar New Year holidays.

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China's week-long Spring Festival holiday will start on February 4 this year, during which tens of millions of Chinese will travel at home or overseas for family reunions and celebrations.

The economy has been relying on consumption for growth.

Some economists believe growth could even dip below 6 percent in the first half - from 6.4 percent in the fourth quarter - before stabilizing later in the year.

So far, China has fast-tracked infrastructure projects, cut taxes and pumped liquidity into the financial system to help keep cash-starved firms afloat.

But with profits under pressure and growing idle capacity, many factory owners are in no mood to make the new investments that policymakers need to engineer a sustainable turnaround.

The two PMI surveys on the Chinese manufacturing sector showed different readings because of the types of companies being polled.

But such supportive measures may take time to be effective, economists said. "But the downward trend will not change".