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A Divergent Path of Industrial Upgrading: Emergence and Evolution of the Mobile Handset Industry in China

Discussion Papers


by IMAI Ken and Shiu Jingming
October 2007


Starting from almost null in the late 1990s, China’s mobile phone handset industry has grown to account for more than 40 percent of the current world production. While export growth has been overwhelmingly led by multi-national corporations (MNCs), increasingly fierce competition in the domestic market ignited by the advent of local handset makers has induced unique industrial evolution: (1) outgrowth of independent design houses specialized in handset development and (2) emergence of IC fabless ventures that design core ICs for handsets. In the background of this evolutionary industrial growth there are factors such as, the scale and increasing diversity of China’s domestic market that advantages local firms vis-à-vis MNCs; modularization of handset and semiconductor technologies; policy interventions that supports local startups. The emergence and evolution of China’s handset industry is likely to have international implications as the growth of the global demand for low-cost and multi-function mobile phone handsets is expected to accelerate. Thus, our case suggests that the conventional view of latecomer industrialization and upgrading that emphasizes the key role of international production networks organized by MNCs needs to be modified in order to accommodate China’s rise into perspective.

Keywords: industrial upgrading, China's industrial growth
JEL classification: L1, L6, O1, O3, P2

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