This paper aims to study the international expansion of small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) in an emerging economy. Mathews’ (2006: 5–27) linkage–leverage–learning (LLL) model is the framework applied to analyse the process of international expansion of SMEs. To operationalise the study of the barriers, the LLL model was linked to the work of Leonidou (2004: 279–302). The data was collected from 125 SMEs operating in Ningxia, China, and then analysed using multivariate regressions; the models used the firms’ export intensity at the regional, national and international level as dependent variables. Four models were run: two analysing the internal and external barriers hindering firms’ international expansion, and the other two models studying the characteristics of Chinese international companies (state funding and ownership) as independent variables. The results show that 12 of the barriers defined by Leonidou (2004) are hindering the expansion of Ningxia’s SMEs, that the ownership from the state does not play an important role in this expansion, and that the support from the state in the form of funds is helpful in the first stages of the expansion (regional level) and the funds from private sources are key to cross the country’s boundaries.