Chinese manufacturing activity fell to its lowest in more than six years in the latest sign of the slowdown in the world's second biggest economy, according to a survey released Wednesday.

The preliminary Caixin/Market index, which is based on a survey of factory purchasing managers, fell to 47.0 in September from 47.3 in August. Numbers below 50 on the 100-point index indicate contraction.

The index is at its lowest since March 2009, when the world was gripped by the fallout from the global financial crisis. The preliminary index reading is based on 85 percent of survey respondents. The final figure, which is often revised, is due by Oct. 1.

Factory output, export orders, overall new orders and employment all shrank at a faster pace, the report said.

The data will add to the pressure on China's communist leaders as they try to prevent growth from falling too sharply.

China's economic growth held steady at 7 percent in the most recent quarter, which was its weakest performance since 2008. Growth has fallen from the double-digit rates of the previous decade as Beijing tries to wean the economy off its reliance on trade and investment in favor of domestic spending on goods and services but the transition is challenging.

Policymakers in Beijing have cut interest rates five times since November in a bid to bolster economic growth.

"The decline indicates the nation's manufacturing industry has reached a crucial stage in the structural transformation process," said He Fan, chief economist of Caixin Insight Group.

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This story has been corrected to show that the manufacturing index was 47.3 in August, not 48.3.