Since the 1970s, China has changed from a centrally planned economy to a more open and globalized one. Within this context we ask how, under what circumstances and through what means are local governments able to make policy innovations in upgrading the business environment within their jurisdictions. Theoretically, it is possible to learn policy innovations from the past, from neighbours and from aboard. Leading development regions, like the Yangtze River Delta, are unlikely to learn from either their domestic neighbours or their past communist history. Therefore, they must learn from the experiences of other countries. We argue that this transnational learning process occurs through three different but interrelated mechanisms. These are (1) the personal networks of local officials interacting with foreign investors who are familiar with international business standards of global production networks; (2) institutional alliances in which local officials interact with foreign governments that have co-invested in development zones and joint interests; and (3) hegemonic discourse, wherein local officials interact with foreign consultants who have essential development knowledge. We examine this contention by analysing three empirical cases of local governments in the Yangtze River Delta – Kunshan, which demonstrates the personal network learning mechanism; Suzhou, demonstrating institutional alliance learning; and Shanghai, which exemplifies learning through hegemonic discourse.