The historical roots of China’s industrial clusters

I’ve been interested in industrial clusters in China for a while, since I think they tell us a lot about underlying patterns of private-sector economic activity. Clusters are behind much of China’s decades-long success in exports, and more recently seem to be related to some fast-growing domestic service sectors as well.

A recent working paper by Xiwei Zhu et al., “Entrepreneurship and Industrial Clusters: Evidence from the China Industrial Census“,  makes some interesting points on this topic. The authors do some fancy math to identify clusters from data on the location of industrial firms, which results in the nice map below.

Zhu-cluster-map.png

The results are broadly consistent with more anecdotal approaches to identifying: industrial clusters are most prevalent in the coastal provinces of Zhejiang, Jiangsu and Guangdong (but note that Sichuan far inland also does pretty well). Places with lots of clusters also tend to be places where the private sector is a larger part of the economy.

Why do clusters form in these places? Geography is part of the traditional explanation, and the authors do find that access to ports (i.e., access to world markets) contributes to the formation of clusters. But they also argue that what they call the historical “supply of entrepreneurs” is an important factor.

Since there were few recognized private companies in China before the 1990s, most founders of private-sector firms had to come from somewhere else–and state-owned or collective enterprises were a major source.

Zhu-entrepreneur-table.png

The authors use the number of firms in 1985 as an indicator of this historical potential for entrepreneurship. And they find that the number of all firms in 1985 is closely related with the number of private-sector firms in 2004:

Zhu-firms-scatter.png

The pattern suggests that the places where private-sector businesses flourished after liberalization were in fact those places where disguised private-sector businesses were already most prevalent. This fits in with historical evidence from the 1970s that pre-Communist commercial traditions and patterns often continued in the form of collective enterprises.

Though this particular paper is heavy on data and light on historical interpretation, I think it does contribute to a different narrative about China’s economic development. In such a narrative, China’s growth resurgence, at least in the 1980s and 1990s, is more about the flourishing of long-suppressed indigenous entrepreneurial traditions than the success of top-down development programs.

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