Over the past few years, China has emerged as a powerhouse in the increasingly digitized, e-commerce-driven world. Its digital economy accounted for 38.2% of its GDP growth in the first half of 2018,1 and it also happens to be home to 9 of the top 20 internet companies in the world, including the search engine Baidu, e-commerce behemoth Alibaba and internet services provider Tencent.2 China's success can serve as a lesson for companies and economies around the world that are pushing to remain relevant and keep a competitive edge.
One driver behind China's success is the government's focus on shifting to a digital economy. In 2015, China's State Council, the highest organ of state administration, issued a report called "Made in China 2025." The document outlines its strategy for transforming China's manufacturing base through digital innovation. Its strategic goals include greatly increasing manufacturing digitization and "informationization." For instance, within the category of integrating IT and industrialization, the report lists a goal of increasing broadband penetration from 37% in 2013 to 82% by 2025.4
That said, the initiatives outlined have also prompted concern among policymakers across the globe.5 Some fear that an industrial policy directed by the government will include financial assistance to Chinese companies, creating an uneven global playing field. Some also worry about China's investments in foreign technology firms. At the same time, the goals and strategies outlined in the report signal that China's leadership intends to focus on ensuring the country is prepared for an increasingly digital world.
To that end, investments in research and development from Chinese companies, research institutes and the government have skyrocketed. Since 2000, it's gone from about $40 billion to $443 billion, just shy of the $484 billion invested within the U.S., according to data from the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development.6
China is also working to minimize any digital divide between citizens in its major cities and more remote areas. Several provinces have developed plans to digitize their economies. For example, the province of Guizhou plans to grow its digital economy by 20% annually.7 The World Economic Forum also explains that, in what are known as Taobao villages, at least 10% of households run online stores for Taobao, which is the shopping site for e-commerce behemoth Alibaba. Across one such village, this generates e-commerce revenues of at least $1.6 million, and more than 1,000 of these villages dot the Chinese countryside.8