CHINA’s exporters once had little to offer the world and everything to learn from it. In the 1960s intrepid entrepreneurs ventured across the border from Hong Kong to the Canton Fair to buy wooden toys from China’s rudimentary factories. One visitor threw away a sock in his hotel, according to the book “Toy Town” by Sarah Monks. It was later mailed back to him, darned and washed.

In 1978 when the country began to reform and open up, it accounted for less than 1% of global exports of goods. For the next 37 years, its share grew remorselessly, accelerating around the time of its entry into the World Trade Organisation in 2001. In socks, for example, China accounts for about 40% of world exports.

But in 2016 something unusual happened. China’s share of global merchandise exports slipped: from 13.9% to 13.5%, according to IMF data. That might have been a blip in a tumultuous year. But in the first 11 months of 2017 (the latest data available) its share fell again, to less than 13%.

The story is similar within Asia, points out Louis Kuijs of Oxford Economics, a forecasting firm. China’s share of the region’s exports has dropped by 2.6 percentage points from 2015 to 2017 (see chart). Currency fluctuations are one potential culprit. But although the value of the yuan, weighted by trade and adjusted for inflation, rose until 2015, it weakened for the next year and a half.

It is also tempting to place the blame wholly on deteriorating demographics and rising labour costs. But although China’s working-age population is shrinking, its labour force, and urban employment, is still growing.

Besides, China is losing market share not only to cheaper, younger countries like Vietnam. It is also ceding ground to greyer, costlier rivals like Japan, South Korea and Taiwan. The trio’s combined share of Asia’s exports rose by almost 1.2 percentage points from 2015 to 2017.

Exporters in these three developed economies have benefited from a powerful upswing in demand for sophisticated electronic components, such as flash memory chips—an industrial niche that China has yet to commandeer for itself. But the price of some of these technological delicacies has recently begun to fall. Are these countries’ gains therefore merely cyclical? The present tech cycle may indeed be losing momentum, argues Mr Kuijs, but the three countries are still well placed to gain from the long-term growth of artificial intelligence and robotics.

China’s economy meanwhile has evolved from industry towards services, which are harder to sell across borders and which are anyway excluded from merchandise-trade statistics (which cover only goods). China’s domestic spending has also risen faster than production, resulting in a narrower trade surplus. Some of the goods China would once have sold to foreigners it now consumes itself.

China’s exports have also become more Chinese. Fifteen years ago they had a big hole in them: only 55% of their value was added in China, according to a broad measure of the “processing trade” compiled by Mr Kuijs. Most of the remainder was embedded in parts and components that China had imported and assembled. That hole has since diminished. The percentage of value added in China is now 67% or so.

This evolution is visible even in socks. In Datang, or “Sock City”, in Zhejiang province, where 70% of China’s socks are made, firms increasingly offer their own branded varieties, rather than making pairs that will be sold under a foreign company’s label. China may be producing a declining share of the world’s exports. But it now claims a higher share of their value.