The pace of Chinese manufacturing growth slowed in June as government steps to cool the red-hot property market and restrain bank lending combined with uncertainty over export prospects to dampen sentiment.
The official purchasing managers' index (PMI) fell to 52.1 in June from 53.9 in May, the China Federation of Logistics and Purchasing (CFLP) said on Thursday.
The reading was the lowest since February and was weaker than the median forecast of 53.1 in a Reuters poll of 10 economists.
It is the 16th straight month that the official PMI has stood above the threshold of 50 that demarcates expansion from contraction.
But Zhang Liqun, a government economist, said the survey pointed to what he described as a steady slowdown in the broader economy.
China's economy growth is at a critical stage of leveling off after the climb, Zhang, who comments on the index for the logistics federation, said in a statement.
Zhang highlighted a drop in the input price sub-index of the PMI, to 51.3 in June from 58.9 in May, which he said reflected reduced cost pressures on manufacturers.
Fourteen of 20 industrial sectors had a PMI above 50. Those below the boom-bust line included chemicals, oil refining and non-ferrous metal processing.
The federation compiles the index on behalf of the National Bureau of Statistics.
The index hit a record low of 38.8 in November 2008 and was last below 50 in February 2009.
The PMI showed broad-based softness. Sub-indexes for output, new orders, new export orders, backlogs of work, imports and employment all fell on the month.
(Reporting by Zhou Xin and Alan Wheatley; Editing by Jonathan Hopfner)