BEIJING, 1st March, 2016 (WAM)–Activity in China’s manufacturing sector shrank more sharply than expected in February, surveys showed on Tuesday, prompting smaller companies to shed workers at the fastest pace in seven years and suggesting Beijing will have to ramp up stimulus to avoid a deeper economic slowdown.

Some investors had been bracing for weak readings after the central bank unexpectedly eased policy late on Monday, injecting an estimated $100 billion worth of cash into the banking system to cushion the pain of upcoming reforms such as restructuring bloated state enterprises.

The official Purchasing Managers’ Index (PMI) fell to 49.0 in February from January’s reading of 49.4 and below the 50-point mark that separates growth from contraction. Economists polled by Reuters had expected only a slight dip to 49.3.

It was the lowest reading since November 2011.