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Escaping the Middle-Income Trap: A Cross-Country Analysis on the Patterns of Industrial Upgrading

With rapid industrial upgrading along the global value chain of manufactured goods, China has transformed, within one generation, from an impoverished agrarian society to a middle-income nation as well as the largest manufacturing powerhouse in the world. This article identifies the pattern of China’s industrial upgrading and compares it with those of other successfully industrialized economies and the failed ones. We find that (i) China (since 1978) followed essentially the same path of industrial upgrading as that of Japan and the “Asian Tigers.” These economies succeeded in catching up with the developed western world by going through three developmental stages sequentially; namely, a proto-industrialization in the rural areas, a first industrial revolution featuring mass production of labor-intensive light consumer goods, and then a second industrial revolution featuring mass production of the means of mass production (i.e., capital-intensive heavy industrial good s such as steel, machine tools, electronics, automobiles, communication and transport infrastructures). (ii) In contrast, economies stuck in the low-income trap or middle-income trap did not follow the above sequential stages of industrialization. For example, many Eastern European and Latin American countries after WWII jumped to the stage of heavy industrialization without fully developing their labor-intensive light industries, and thus stagnated in the middle-income trap. Also, there is a clear lack of proto-industrialization in the rural areas for many African economies that have remained in the low-income trap. We believe that laissez-faire and “free market” alone is unable to trigger industrial upgrading. Instead, correct government-led bottom-up industrial policies are the key to escaping the low- and middle-income traps.

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DOI: 10.20955/wp.2018.001


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