Saturday, February 20, 2010

Joint Ventures Key in China’s Export Growth

Foreign investors have played a key role in the evolution of China’s exports of consumer electronics. Over the past few decades, foreign investors in China were found to be the most productive of the producers, they were the source of technology, and they dominated exports. China’s openness to foreign investment and its willingness to create Special Economic Zones (SEZs) where foreign producers could operate with good infrastructure and with minimum hassles must therefore receive considerable credit. But if China has welcomed foreign companies, it has always done so with the objective of fostering domestic capabilities. To that end, China used a number of policies to ensure that technology transfer would take place and strong domestic players would emerge. Early on, reliance was placed predominantly on state-owned national champions. Later, the government used a variety of carrots and sticks. Foreign investors were required to enter into joint ventures using the Law of the People;s Republic of China on Joint Ventures Using Chinese and Foreign Investment with domestic firms (for instance in mobile phones and in computers).

There was also a role for tariffs. Domestic markets were protected to attract market-seeking investors, in addition to those that looked for cost savings. Weak enforcement of intellectual protection laws enabled domestic producers to reverse engineer and imitate foreign technologies. And localities were given substantial freedoms to fashion their own policies of stimulation and support, which led to the creation of industrial clusters in particular areas of the country.

On acquiring technology transfer and building local supply linkages, China’s strategy was clear: It allowed foreign firms access to the domestic market in exchange for technology transfer through joint production or joint ventures. In fact, 100% foreign owned firms were a rarity among the leading players in the industry. Most of the significant firms tended to be joint ventures between foreign firms and domestic (mostly state-owned) entities. A strong domestic producer base has however also been important in diffusing imported technologies and in creating domestic supply chains. Facilitating technology transfer requires a strong focus on Research and Development by the State. Without state support and publicly funded R&D, a company like Lenovo (previously known as Legend) which became large and profitable enough to purchase IBM’s PC business would never have come into being.

In sum, China has benefited both from good fundamentals—low labor and materials costs, “outward orientation” in the form of SEZs, large market size—and from a determined government effort to acquire domestic capabilities and build a modern industry. The large size of the economy has allowed policy experimentation. It also has allowed the government to use the carrot of the internal market to force foreign investors into joint ventures with domestic producers. If China is producing an increasingly sophisticated set of consumer electronics for instance, it would appear that this is due as much to the policy environment as it is to the free play of market forces.

For more on Special Economic Zones see here

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