Who gets to be a tech entrepreneur in China?
I recently spoke about this with Lin Zhang, assistant professor of media and communication studies at the University of New Hampshire and author of a new book: Renewable Labor: Entrepreneurship in China’s New Digital Economy. Drawing on a decade of research and interviews, the book explores the rise and social impact of Chinese people who have succeeded (at least temporarily) as entrepreneurs, especially those work in the digital economy.
In the not too distant past, China was Obsessed with with an entrepreneurial spirit. At the Davos conference in the summer of 2014, Li Keqiang, China’s prime minister, called for a campaign of “mass entrepreneurship and innovation”. “A new wave of grassroots startups… will keep China’s economic development engine up to date,” he declared.
Technology platforms, which have provided entry points to the digital economy for many new entrepreneurs, also joined the government campaign. Jack Ma, founder of e-commerce empire Alibaba and a former English teacher, said in 2018: “If people like me can succeed, 80% of the time. [the] Young people in China and around the world can do the same.” Alibaba often touts itself as the champion of small online businesses and even invited a rural salesman to a bell-ringing ceremony in New York in 2014. (Finally, the home-to-home relationship. water and tycoons like Ma will become much closer fullalthough the book focuses on people using platforms like Alibaba, rather than the tech giants of the country that founded them.)
At the core of this campaign is a compelling idea that the country’s most powerful voices are reinforcing: Everyone has the opportunity to be an entrepreneur thanks to the huge new opportunities in the digital economy. of China. A key element to this promise, as the title of Zhang’s book implies, is that in order to succeed, people must constantly reinvent themselves: leave stable jobs, learn new skills, and new platforms, and take advantage of their niche networks and experiences—which may have been overlooked in the past—and use them as assets to run a new business.
Many Chinese of different ages and genders, with different educational and economic backgrounds, heeded the call. In the book, Zhang focuses on three types of entrepreneurs:
- Silicon Valley-style startup founders in Beijingwho have taken full advantage of the government’s obsession with entrepreneurship.
- Rural e-commerce sellers on the popular shopping platform Taobao, who use their own families and neighbors to turn local handmade goods into profitable businesses.
- Dai Gouusually female High-end fashion shopping agent from abroad and sell them to China’s middle-class consumers through the social media black market.
What interests me most about their stories is how, despite their differences, they all reveal how entrepreneurship in China falls short of its equal promises.
Take the rural Taobao sellers as an example. Inspired by a cousin who quit his factory job and became a Taobao seller, Zhang went to live in a rural village in eastern China to observe people returning to the countryside after working in the city and reinventing themselves as entrepreneurs selling traditional local products—in this case, clothing or furniture woven from straw.
Zhang found that while some owners of e-commerce stores become well-off and famous, they only share a small portion of the profits with the workers they hire to grow their businesses — are usually older women in their family or from neighboring households. And the state has ignored those workers by boasting about entrepreneurship in rural China.