This paper investigates how firm innovation reacts to changes in competitive pressure in the export market. We use the exchange rate appreciation of the renminbi during 2005–2007 as a natural experiment and exploit its differential impact on Chinese manufacturing firms with different export exposure. The appreciation reduced exports and imposed greater competitive pressure on exporters relative to non‐exporters. In response, exporters increased innovation activities more than non‐exporters. Using a difference‐in‐difference approach, we find that the research and development expenditure of exporters increased by 11% more than that of non‐exporters during the appreciation period, and the new product development of exporters increased by nearly 1.5 times more than that of non‐exporters. These results highlight the important role of competition in providing incentives for firm innovation.