This paper, which is positioned in the interface of innovation economics and economic geography, contributes to the debate about the path‐dependent evolution of regional innovation systems (RIS) in emerging and transitional economies. Drawing on an empirical study conducted in Shenzhen and Dongguan, China, a path‐dependent nature of governance modality for initiating industrialization within the transitional context has been uncovered. The paper shows that the dirigiste globalized production system in Shenzhen, where the government exerted strong directive influence in the 1980s, has gradually evolved and reached a higher form of interactive RIS than the grassroots globalized production system in Dongguan, where innovation activities are few and are still passively managed by global players. The review of the evolutionary path of the electronics industry in Shenzhen and Dongguan reveals that the locational first‐mover advantage in Shenzhen is further strengthened by the institutional first‐mover advantage, incubating competitive and diversified firms in the business sector, which facilitate the interactive learning mechanism in RIS. Finally, policy implication is discussed for the construction of RIS under different governance modalities in the initial industrialization phase.