ADBI Working Paper Series
With international trade spluttering amidst the Great Recession, there is renewed interest in the factors driving firm-level export performance in Asia’s super exporter—The People’s Republic of China (PRC). While early studies suggested that innovation was important, there has been little research on opening up the black box of technology at firm-level in the PRC. This paper undertakes econometric analysis of innovation, learning, and exporting in automobiles and electronics firms in the PRC using a large-scale dataset to identify the most appropriate innovation proxy. Drawing on recent literature on innovation and learning in developing countries, it tests two alternative proxies: (i) a technology index (TI) to capture a variety of minor activities involved in using imported technologies efficiently; and (ii) the research and development (R&D)-to-sales ratio, which represents formal technological efforts to create new products and processes, often at world frontiers. A higher TI (representing minor technological activities) increases the probability of exporting in both industries, while the R&D-to-sales ratio was not significant. Foreign ownership, technical manpower, and the characteristics of the general manager/chief executive officer also matter. The findings suggest that the PRC’s remarkable success in the export of automobiles and electronics since initiating an open-door foreign direct investment (FDI) policy in 1978 is linked to technology transfer from multinationals; systematic investments in and upgrading of minor technological activities (like search, engineering, quality management, and design); and human capital. As the PRC’s per capita income rises over time, however, formal R&D activities are likely to become more important to sustain competitiveness and technological upgrading in automobiles and electronics.