A common concern is that China’s opening to trade has de-industrialised other developing countries. Their labour-intensive manufacturing has been hit by Chinese competition in their home markets – a complaint often heard in Africa and Latin America – and in export markets, while their primary exports have been pulled up by Chinese demand. This mixture of effects is worrying because industrialisation is vital for development, manufacturing provides jobs, and the ownership of natural resources is often highly unequal – so the net impact of China could be both slower growth and greater inequality in the rest of the developing world.
Standard trade theory is consistent with these concerns. The impact of China on other countries can be interpreted in a Heckscher-Ohlin model as occurring through a shift in world average factor endowments. The comparative advantage of a country depends on its endowments not in isolation but relative to the endowments of all other countries involved in trade. This comparator group was altered by China’s emergence from near-autarky, because of its size and distinctive endowment structure, and hence so was the comparative advantage of other countries.
More specifically, China’s opening to trade effectively lowered the world average land/labour ratio and increased the share of workers with a basic education in the world labour force. The relative endowments of other countries were thus shifted in the opposite directions, which tended to move their comparative advantage away from labour-intensive manufacturing, which requires many workers with a basic education but little land. The corresponding increase in comparative advantage for developing countries was in primary production, which uses a lot of land relative to labour.
Mayer and Wood present data depicting average changes in ratios of labor-intensive manufacturing in primary production in the 1980s and 1990s, and the differences between these decades, for output and two sets of export data. From this data it appears that the bulk of China's impact was concentrated in the 1990s. Figures from Kenya, Mauritius and South Africa further show negative differences between output and export ratios, which is consistent with the expected impact of China proffered by standard trade theory.