Changzhou's traditional role has been that of a commercial center and in particular a distribution center for agricultural produce, which was shipped by canal to the north and later, to Shanghai. The city began to develop a cotton textile industry in the 1920s, and cotton mills were established in the late 1930s, when Japanese attacks drove many Chinese businesses to invest outside Shanghai.
The city has remained a textile center and the most important location in Jiangsu Province for weaving. It also has large food-processing plants as well as flour-milling, rice-polishing, and oil-pressing industries. After 1949 it also developed as a centre of the engineering industry. Qishuyan, some 10 kilometres (6.2 mi) southeast of Changzhou, has one of the largest locomotive and rolling stock plants in China. Other engineering works in Changzhou produce diesel engines, generators, transformers along with agricultural and textile machinery. At the time of the Great Leap Forward in 1958 a steel plant was also built to provide raw material for heavy industry.
Since 1908, Changzhou has been linked by rail with Shanghai and Nanjing (see below for transportation).
Up until now, Changzhou has remained one of the most developed cities in Jiangsu, ranked third after Suzhou and Wuxi. The city's 2009 GDP per capita of ¥70,103 in 2009, less than that of Suzhou and Wuxi but more than the capital city Nanjing, ranked the city third in Jiangsu, .
Changzhou is also one of the top business cities in China. According to Forbes ranking, Changzhou was the 9th best business city in mainland China in 2008