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Innovation in China’s information and communications technology industry: Bottom up or top down?

Mingzhi Li (School of Economics and Management, Tsinghua University, Beijing, China)
Kai Reimers (School of Business and Economics, RWTH Aachen University, Aachen, Germany)

Chinese Management Studies

ISSN: 1750-614X

Article publication date: 7 April 2015




This paper aims to identify the sources of innovation in the current business environment of China. With the set target of transforming China into an innovative society by 2020, the Chinese government has taken dramatic measures to foster the nation’s innovation capability. Whether this Chinese model of promoting innovation has been successful and can be sustainable are controversial issues which need to be analyzed from an academic perspective. In recent years, there have been successful cases of innovation driven by grassroots entrepreneurs, especially in the information and communications technology (ICT) industry. Therefore, it is time to analyze their success factors from the perspectives of both corporate strategy and government policy.


The methodology used in this research is a comparative case analysis, and several high-profile cases in China’s ICT industry have been selected for this comparative study. Information used in the analysis comes from publicly available sources such as business school case studies and industry and news media reports. The authors have been following the evolution of China’s ICT industry for more than a decade; insights from their prior research and knowledge gained through industry contacts are also used in the analysis.


Generally speaking, the types of innovation in China’s ICT industry can be categorized into a top-down or a bottom-up approach. For the top-down approach of innovation driven by the government, the authors analyzed the case of the Chinese government’s effort to build an industry value chain through fostering the Chinese indigenous third-generation mobile communications standard time division–synchronous code division multiple access. In comparison, the authors use several success cases, including the ecosystem built around the highly successful XiaoMi mobile phone and Tencent’s mobile portal WeChat, as it showcases of the bottom-up approach of innovation driven by grassroots entrepreneurship. The comparison of these two approaches suggests that massive government-sponsored projects are unlikely to generate genuine innovation in the highly competitive and dynamic ICT sector. The government’s role should be to foster entrepreneurship and to create a fair business environment.


This research uses the method of comparative case studies to identify the source of innovation in a highly dynamic and uncertain business environment. Findings of this study shed light on the government policy toward innovation in the ICT industry and on the business firms’ strategy on innovation.



Mingzhi Li’s research has been supported by the National Natural Science Foundation of China, project number 71273151. Kai Reimers acknowledges the financial support from the National Natural Science Foundation of China, project number 70972029.


Li, M. and Reimers, K. (2015), "Innovation in China’s information and communications technology industry: Bottom up or top down?", Chinese Management Studies, Vol. 9 No. 1, pp. 27-37.



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