The official purchasing managers' index ticked up a notch to 50.4 last month, compared with 50.3 in March, where any number above 50 indicates expansion, China's National Bureau of Statistics said Thursday.
The reading suggests a marginal improvement in the Chinese manufacturing sector and the broader economy, economists said, but is far from a decisive rebound.
"At least the downward trend has stopped.But it's too early to say the economy is turning around."says economist.
China's economy slowed in the first quarter of the year, registering 7.4% year-over-year growth, compared with 7.7% in the final quarter of 2013 and falling short of the government's 7.5% target for the first time in 18 months.
The new orders subindex of the PMI rose to 51.2 in April from 50.6 the previous month, despite weakness in the new exports orders component, indicating that the pickup is being driven mainly by domestic demand.
China's exports have been weak so far this year, with a hoped-for rebound in demand from the industrialized countries slow to materialize. Exports in the first quarter were down 3.5% from the same period of 2013, against a backdrop of sluggish demand from the West.
The U.S. economy grew at a paltry 0.1% seasonally-adjusted annualized rate in the first quarter, its weakest in three years, undermining orders from one of China's most important market.
Any strengthening of the U.S. and European economies later in the year could boost export demand and lift China's economy, Mr. Zhu said.
Large manufacturers continue to do better than small ones, according to the PMI, which is compiled by the government's statistics agency with the official China Federation of Logistics and Purchasing. The HSBC manufacturing PMI, a competing index, has recently been weaker. A preliminary reading for April came in at just 48.3, below the line that separates expansion from contraction. This reflects the greater weight of small businesses in HSBC's sample, Mr. Zhang said.
The official PMI is based on a survey sent out each month to 3,000 businesses in the manufacturing sector.