Industrial development is the process by which economies learn how to produce new products and services. But how do economies learn? And who do they learn from? The literature on economic geography and economic development has emphasized two learning channels: inter-industry learning, which involves learning from related industries; and inter-regional learning, which involves learning from neighboring regions.
Here we use 25 years of data describing the evolution of China's economy between 1990 and 2015--a period when China multiplied its GDP per capita by a factor of ten--to explore how Chinese provinces diversified their economies.
First, we show that the probability that a province will develop a new industry increases with the number of related industries that are already present in that province, a fact that is suggestive of inter-industry learning. Also, we show that the probability that a province will develop an industry increases with the number of neighboring provinces that are developed in that industry, a fact suggestive of inter-regional learning. Moreover, we find that the combination of these two channels exhibit diminishing returns, meaning that the contribution of either of these learning channels is redundant when the other one is present.
Further, we address endogeneity concerns by using the introduction of high-speed rail as an instrument to isolate the effects of inter-regional learning. Our differences-in-differences (DID) analysis reveals that the introduction of high speed-rail increased the industrial similarity of pairs of provinces connected by high-speed rail. Also, industries in provinces that were connected by rail increased their productivity when they were connected by rail to other provinces where that industry was already present. These findings suggest that inter-regional and inter-industry learning played a role in China's great economic expansion.