China strongly emphasizes attracting foreign investment in projects that will enhance the nation's economic development. Beginning in the early 1970s, China contracted for the construction of a substantial number of complete plants, notably for iron and steel, automobile, and fertilizer manufacture and power generation, including nuclear power. Such agreements, often made with private firms from Japan, Germany, Italy, France, the United Kingdom, and Canada, as well as with agencies of the Communist states, all called for direct purchase of materials and services. Residual ownership by foreigners and remittance of profits from production were expressly disallowed. In 1979, China established the Foreign Investment Control Commission to attract and coordinate foreign investment, and the first four Special Economic Zones (SEZs) in southern China at Shenzhen, Xiamen, Shantou, and Zhuhai to attract foreign investment (the fifth SEZ was established on Hainan Island in 1988). China's policies toward private investment have become increasingly open. In the 1980s, foreign investment was restricted to export-oriented businesses, and foreign investors were required to enter into joint ventures (JVs) with Chinese counterparts in order to enter the market. Under the Joint Ventures Law, enacted in 1979 and revised in 1982, the development of joint ventures for the production of exports has been particularly stressed as a means of securing for China the foreign exchange needed to pay for purchases of advanced technology. Foreign investment in products for the domestic market, other than those needed for modernization, was discouraged. In 1984, further foreign investment opportunities were created with the designation of 14 open coastal cities—Shanghai, Guangzhou, Tianjin, Fuzhou, Dailan, Qinhuangdao, Yantai, Qingdao, Lianyungan, Nantong, Ningbo, Wenzhou, Zhanjiang, and Beihai—where preferential incentives could also be offered. Since then, 52 state-approved economic and technology zones have come into existence, and most provinces, regions, and major municipalities have their own international and trust investment corporations, of which the one in Shanghai is the largest. Special corporations for the attraction of investment by overseas Chinese have been established in Fujian and Zhejiang provinces. In the early 1990s, the government began allowing foreign investors to manufacture and sell an increasingly wide variety of goods in the domestic market. From the mid-1990s, wholly foreign-owned enterprises (WFOEs) have been allowed to operate. In 2000 and 2001, China revised its laws on JVs and WFOEs to eliminate requirements for foreign exchange balancing, to eliminate domestic sales ratio requirements, to eliminate or adjust advanced technology and export performance requirements, and to modify provisions on domestic procurement of raw materials. With China's accession to the WTO in November 2001, foreign investment opportunities were further expanded with the removal of financial and distribution services from the restricted list. Only the production of arms, and the mining and processing of certain minerals are currently off-limits to foreign investment.
China attracts capital in four ways: (1) by soliciting loans and credits from foreign governments and international financial institutions; (2) by floating bonds and debentures on international capital markets; (3) by promoting direct foreign investment through joint ventures and other cooperative enterprises; and (4) by accumulating trade surpluses from export sales.
From 1979 to 2000, according to Chinese government figures, FDI totaled $350 billion. This figure includes investment from the Special Administrative Regions (SARs) of Hong Kong and Macao as well as from Taiwan. On an annual basis, this not-very-foreign proportion of FDI has dropped from over two-thirds to an average of 45.5% for 1999 and 2000. (Analysts have also estimated that 10% to 30% of FDI from Hong Kong actually comes from Chinese mainland companies looking for a tax break). From 1979 to 1990, double-digit annual growth rates in the early years (55% in 1984 and 38% in 1985) declined to a low of 2.7% in 1990, the year after the Tiananmen Square violence. However, in 1991, FDI increased 25% and then soared by triple digits in 1992 (152%) and 1993 (150%). By the end of 1995, over 258,000 foreign-invested enterprises had registered in China. In 1996 a World Bank study found that China attracted more than one-third of all investment in factories and other manufacturing plants in developing nations. Growth rates, of course, moderated after their early surge, but it was not until the Asian financial crisis of 1997–98, precipitated by China's reabsorption of Hong Kong in June 1997, that annual FDI levels stagnated, with a 0.45% growth rate in 1998, and then declined, with an 11.1% fall in 1999 from $45.46 billion to $40.4 billion annual FDI. In 1999 foreign invested firms numbered 300,000 and accounted for almost 50% of exports. In 2000, FDI only grew 0.9%, to $40.77 billion, but in 2001, a 14.6% increase sent annual FDI to a record $46.8 billion.
China continues to have no mergers and acquisitions law that would permit the involuntary take-over of a company. A company can be bought outright but the sale requires specific government approval, as do all investments in China. Indirect foreign (or portfolio) investment (FII) is limited to those willing to invest to the mainland companies listed on the Chinese stock exchange. Mainland companies raised about $22 billion in 2000. This fell to about $12 billion in 2001, reflecting the near 50% drop in foreign investment worldwide following the 11 September 2001 terrorist attacks on the United States.
Until the early 1980s, the flow of Chinese funds abroad was confined to assistance to developing countries and to investment in Hong Kong real estate. In 1983, however, China began making direct investments overseas, in the United States, Canada, the Solomon Islands, and Sri Lanka. China has been a significant supplier of development aid to other countries. Recipients of Chinese military and economic assistance have included the DPRK, Vietnam, Egypt, Pakistan, and Tanzania.