Machines in a Chinese factory. Photo: China News Agency

China’s factory activity grew at its fastest pace in more than three years in November, official data showed Monday, as the world’s second-largest economy continued its recovery from the coronavirus.

The Purchasing Managers’ Index (PMI), a key gauge of manufacturing activity in China, has largely rebounded following strict measures to curb the virus outbreak early in the year, coming in at 52.1 this month.

This was higher than October’s reading of 51.4, and remains above the 50-point mark separating growth from contraction.

The latest figures also bring the PMI data back to levels seen in September 2017.

Zhao Qinghe, senior statistician at the National Bureau of Statistics (NBS) – which publishes the PMI – said Monday that both the production and new order indexes edged up and that “the supply-demand cycle has continued to improve.”

Both sub-indexes fared well in industries relating to high-tech manufacturing such as pharmaceuticals, electrical machinery and equipment, he added.

But recovery in the manufacturing industry remains “uneven,” Zhao said, and official data showed that small enterprises, which were hurt more by the Covid-19 outbreak, continued to lag behind large businesses.

China is expected to be the only major economy to record positive growth this year.

The non-manufacturing PMI came in at 56.4 in November, slightly higher than the month before, signaling a further recovery in the services sector.

Lu Ting, chief China economist at Nomura, an investment bank, said in a recent note that data suggested “decent” growth momentum remains in some high-tech industries.

Others like blast furnace operation rates appear to be running out of steam – partly due to anti-pollution measures – adding pressure to the production of industrial products such as steel and cement.

But on the non-manufacturing side, Lu warned that recent sporadic Covid-19 outbreaks in Shanghai, Tianjin and Inner Mongolia could slow the pace of recovery in some service industries.