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Poor Nations Are Writing a New Handbook for Getting Rich

For more than half a century, the handbook for how developing countries can grow rich hasn’t changed much: Move subsistence farmers into manufacturing jobs, and then sell what they produce to the rest of the world.

The recipe — customized in varying ways by Hong Kong, Singapore, South Korea, Taiwan and China — has produced the most potent engine the world has ever known for generating economic growth. It has helped lift hundreds of millions of people out of poverty, create jobs and raise standards of living.

The Asian Tigers and China succeeded by combining vast pools of cheap labor with access to international know-how and financing, and buyers that reached from Kalamazoo to Kuala Lumpur. Governments provided the scaffolding: They built up roads and schools, offered business-friendly rules and incentives, developed capable administrative institutions and nurtured incipient industries.

But technology is advancing, supply chains are shifting, and political tensions are reshaping trade patterns. And with that, doubts are growing about whether industrialization can still deliver the miracle growth it once did. For developing countries, which contain 85 percent of the globe’s population — 6.8 billion people — the implications are profound.

Today, manufacturing accounts for a smaller share of the world’s output, and China already does more than a third of it. At the same time, more emerging countries are selling inexpensive goods abroad, increasing competition. There are not as many gains to be squeezed out: Not everyone can be a net exporter or offer the world’s lowest wages and overhead.

Robotics at a car factory in China. Today, manufacturing accounts for a smaller share of the world’s output, and China already does more than a third of it. Credit…Qilai Shen for The New York Times

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