State ownership, firm innovation and the moderating role of private-sector competition: the case of China

Hongyan YANG, H. Kevin STEENSMA, Ting REN*

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Journal PublicationsJournal Article (refereed)peer-review

8 Citations (Scopus)


Purpose:This paper aims to study how state ownership influences the innovation process in terms of allocating resources toward searching for new solutions and converting these efforts into economic value. On one hand, deep pockets of the state provide slack resources that may facilitate risk taking and innovation. On the other hand, soft budgets can create incentive problems and dampen the efficient use of resources. The authors suggest how accounting for competitive context can disentangle these countervailing forces. 
Design/methodology/approach:The authors use a panel of over 240,000 Chinese firms over the years 2004–2008. The broad sample and period afforded substantial variability in terms of state ownership within and across firms. The authors use a two-stage model and a within-firm (i.e. fixed-effects) design, controlling for all time-invariant firm characteristics and the problematic unobserved heterogeneity that can often lead to erroneous inferences. Furthermore, the relatively short window limits the likelihood of time-varying unobserved firm characteristics biasing the empirical results.
Findings:The authors found that private-sector competition has the opposite effect on the relationship between state ownership and the second step of the innovation process. In industries where there is robust private-sector competition, state ownership diminishes the firm’s ability to convert R&D efforts into economic value. Private-sector competition competes away any advantages state-owned firms may have in terms of developing or accessing the complementary resources needed for commercialization. Ultimately, the inefficiencies of state ownership in terms of relatively undisciplined selection and monitoring of R&D activities outweigh any potential resource advantages derived from state ownership.
Originality/value:The state remains a prominent player in many economies throughout the world. The authors explored how state ownership of firms influences the resources they expend in searching out new solutions, and their success in converting such resources into economically valuable new products and services. State ownership has potentially countervailing effects on innovation. The authors disentangle these countervailing effects through consideration of how accounting for competitive context could determine whether the beneficial effects of state ownership dominate its detrimental effects for both searching for new solutions and converting these efforts into economically valuable new products. With a focus of market competition as an external force that drives the difference in innovation between SOEs and the private-sector, this study serves as a parallel effort to Jia et al. (2019) who investigate the joint effect of public and corporate governance on SOEs’ innovation performance, and Zhou et al. (2017) who concern the balance of the institution and efficiency logics on the comparative advantage of SOEs over privately owned enterprises in innovation performance.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)729-746
Number of pages18
JournalCompetitiveness Review
Issue number4
Early online date3 Aug 2020
Publication statusPublished - 25 May 2021


  • Competition
  • Firm innovation
  • Private sector
  • State ownership


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