China's services sector grew at its fastest pace in three months in December

BEIJING (REUTERS) - China's services sector grew at its fastest pace in three months in December as new orders remained strong, a private survey showed, an encouraging sign of strength even as manufacturing activity slows and the property market softens.

The HSBC/Markit Services Purchasing Managers' Index(PMI) picked up to 53.4 last month from November's 53.0, well above the 50-point level that separates growth from contraction in activity on a monthly basis.

A sub-index measuring new business eased slightly to 53.9 in December from a 2-1/2 year high of 54.2 in November but remained well in expansion territory, prompting companies to hire more workers for the 16th month in a row.

After a rough 2014, the world's second-largest economy looks set to start the new year on a weak note, reinforcing expectations that Beijing will roll out more stimulus to avert a sharper slowdown which could trigger job losses and debt defaults.

The property slump is expected to last well into 2015, companies will continue to struggle to pay off debt and export demand may remain erratic, leaving only the services sector as the lone bright spot in the economy.