Why China is the Manufacturing Hub of the World

To understand why China is the “Factory of the World”, let’s first understand a bit of China’s trade history. Well, China has a long and rich history of trade dating back thousands of years. The country has played a significant role in global trade, with its trade activities evolving and expanding over time. Here’s a brief overview of China’s trade history:

Trade History of China

Ancient and Medieval Trade:

  • Ancient Silk Road: China’s trade links with the outside world can be traced back to the ancient Silk Road. The Silk Road was a network of trade routes connecting China with Central Asia, the Middle East, and Europe. It facilitated the exchange of goods, ideas, and cultures between different regions.
  • Maritime Trade: China has a long history of maritime trade as well. During the Tang (618-907) and Song (960-1279) dynasties, Chinese merchants engaged in maritime trade along the Southeast Asian coast, the Indian Ocean, and even reached as far as the east coast of Africa.
  • Tribute Trade: The imperial dynasties of China, such as the Han, Tang, and Ming, engaged in tribute trade. Foreign countries would send tribute missions to China, offering gifts and seeking favorable trade conditions in return.
  • Porcelain and Silk Trade: China’s porcelain and silk were highly sought-after goods in international trade. Porcelain, known as China, derived its name from the country’s reputation as a major producer. Silk, renowned for its quality, was in high demand in various parts of the world.

Colonial Era and Opium Wars:

  • The 19th century marked a challenging period for China due to the Opium Wars with Western powers. Britain’s illicit opium trade, along with other grievances, led to conflicts and the eventual signing of unequal treaties. These treaties opened Chinese ports to foreign trade, imposed concessions, and limited China’s sovereignty.
  • Treaty Ports: After the Opium Wars, a series of treaty ports were established in China, where foreign powers had trading privileges and extraterritorial rights. These ports, including Shanghai, Tianjin, and Guangzhou, became important centers of international trade.

Modern Trade and Economic Reforms:

  • Early 20th Century: China faced political and economic turmoil during the early 20th century, including the fall of the Qing Dynasty, civil wars, and Japanese occupation. Trade was disrupted, and the country’s economy suffered.
  • Post-1949: After the establishment of the People’s Republic of China in 1949, China adopted a planned economy and focused on self-sufficiency. Foreign trade was limited during this period.
  • Late 1970s and Economic Reforms: China embarked on economic reforms under Deng Xiaoping in the late 1970s. These reforms included the introduction of market-oriented policies, opening up to foreign investment, and liberalizing trade. China gradually integrated into the global economy and experienced rapid economic growth.
  • Accession to the World Trade Organization (WTO): In 2001, China became a member of the WTO, which further facilitated its integration into the global trading system. This allowed China to expand its trade relations with numerous countries worldwide.
  • Rise as a Global Trading Power: Over the past few decades, China has become the world’s largest exporter and second-largest importer. It has established trade relations with virtually every country, exporting a wide range of goods, including electronics, textiles, machinery, and consumer products.

China’s trade history is a complex and extensive topic. The country’s trade dynamics have been influenced by its historical, political, and economic developments, as well as global trade trends and shifts in the international order.

Why China is the World’s Factory

China has become known as the manufacturing hub of the world due to several key factors:

  1. Large Labor Force: China has a massive population, which has provided a vast labor pool for manufacturing industries. This large workforce has been a significant advantage for China, as it has allowed for the production of goods on a massive scale and at relatively low labor costs.
  2. Low Production Costs: China’s manufacturing sector has been able to offer competitive production costs due to relatively low wages compared to many other countries. This has attracted foreign investment and led to the establishment of numerous factories and production facilities in China.
  3. Infrastructure and Logistics: Over the years, China has invested heavily in infrastructure development, including transportation networks, ports, and logistics systems. This has facilitated the movement of goods within the country and also enhanced its connectivity with global markets. Efficient infrastructure has played a crucial role in making China an attractive manufacturing destination.
  4. Supply Chain Integration: China has developed a highly integrated and efficient supply chain ecosystem. It has a vast network of suppliers, raw material providers, and component manufacturers, allowing for streamlined production processes. This integration and access to diverse suppliers have helped China meet the demands of global manufacturers.
  5. Government Policies: The Chinese government has implemented various policies and incentives to promote manufacturing within the country. Special economic zones, tax benefits, and preferential policies for foreign investment have encouraged multinational corporations to establish production facilities in China.
  6. Manufacturing Expertise: Over the years, China has developed expertise in various manufacturing industries, including electronics, textiles, machinery, and consumer goods. This expertise has been honed through experience, technological advancements, and collaboration with international companies.
  7. Scale and Flexibility: China’s manufacturing sector is characterized by its ability to produce goods at a large scale and with flexibility. Manufacturers in China can quickly adapt to changing market demands and produce goods in large quantities, making it easier for businesses to meet consumer needs.

It’s important to note that while China has been a dominant manufacturing hub, the global manufacturing landscape is evolving. Rising labor costs, geopolitical factors, technological advancements, and shifts in supply chain strategies have led to the emergence of other manufacturing hubs in countries such as Vietnam, India, and Mexico.

What’s Interesting about China’s trade and manufacturing

Here are some interesting facts and figures related to China’s trade and manufacturing:


  1. World’s Largest Exporter: China has been the world’s largest exporter of goods since 2009. In 2020, its total exports amounted to approximately $2.5 trillion.
  2. Major Trading Partners: China has a diverse set of trading partners. Some of its largest trading partners include the United States, the European Union, ASEAN countries (Association of Southeast Asian Nations), and Japan.
  3. Belt and Road Initiative (BRI): China’s ambitious Belt and Road Initiative, launched in 2013, aims to enhance infrastructure and connectivity across Asia, Europe, Africa, and beyond. It involves massive investments in ports, railways, roads, and other infrastructure projects, fostering trade and economic cooperation along the routes.
  4. Leading Importer: China is the world’s second-largest importer of goods, after the United States. In 2020, its total imports reached around $2.1 trillion.
  5. Trade Surplus: China has maintained a trade surplus for many years, meaning its exports exceed its imports. This surplus has contributed to the accumulation of foreign exchange reserves and has been a subject of international economic discussions.


  1. Manufacturing Output: China is known for its massive manufacturing output. In 2020, China accounted for nearly 30% of global manufacturing value-added, making it the world’s largest manufacturer.
  2. Electronics Manufacturing: China is a global leader in electronics manufacturing. It produces a significant portion of the world’s consumer electronics, including smartphones, computers, televisions, and other electronic devices.
  3. Textile and Apparel: China is a major player in the textile and apparel industry. It is the world’s largest exporter of textiles and clothing, supplying garments and fabrics to markets worldwide.
  4. Automotive Industry: China has emerged as the world’s largest automobile market and producer. Many global automakers have established manufacturing operations in China to tap into its growing domestic demand.
  5. Renewable Energy Manufacturing: China has become a leading manufacturer of renewable energy products, such as solar panels and wind turbines. It has heavily invested in renewable energy infrastructure and has a significant market share in the global renewable energy sector.
  6. E-commerce Giants: China is home to some of the world’s largest e-commerce companies, such as Alibaba and JD.com. These platforms have revolutionized online retail and have facilitated global trade by connecting Chinese manufacturers with consumers worldwide.

These facts highlight China’s dominant position in global trade and manufacturing. However, it’s important to note that the landscape is constantly evolving, with emerging manufacturing hubs and changing dynamics in global trade.

Photo: Brookings