Book Excerpt: The Labor of Reinvention
Lin Zhang of the University of New Hampshire explores Entrepreneurship in the New Chinese Digital Economy
Pekingnology is privileged to publish an excerpt from the new book The Labor of Reinvention: Entrepreneurship in the New Chinese Digital Economy by Lin Zhang. I thank the Columbia University Press for granting permission. - Zichen
The official introduction
From start-up founders in the Chinese equivalent of Silicon Valley to rural villages experiencing an e-commerce boom to middle-class women reselling luxury goods, the rise of internet-based entrepreneurship has affected every part of China. For many, reinventing oneself as an entrepreneur has appeared to be an appealing way to adapt to a changing economy and society. Yet in practice, digital entrepreneurship has also reinforced traditional Chinese ideas about state power, labor, gender, and identity.
Lin Zhang explores how the everyday labor of entrepreneurial reinvention is remaking China amid changing geopolitical currents. She tells the stories of people from diverse class, gender, and age backgrounds across rural, urban, and transnational settings in rich detail, providing a multifaceted and ground-level view of the twenty-first-century Chinese economy. Zhang explores the surge in digital entrepreneurialism against the backdrop of global financial crises, the U.S.-China trade war, and the COVID-19 pandemic. She argues that the rise of internet-based industries and practices has simultaneously empowered and exploited digital entrepreneurs and laborers. Despite embracing high-tech innovation, state-led entrepreneurialization does not represent a radical break with the past. It has provided a means for implementing developmental goals while retaining the importance of the traditional family and generating new inequalities.
Shedding new light on global capitalism and the digital economy by centering a non-Western perspective, The Labor of Reinvention vividly conveys how the contradictions of entrepreneurialism have played out in China.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Lin Zhang is assistant professor of communication and media studies at the University of New Hampshire.
Excerpted from The Labor of Reinvention: Entrepreneurship in the New Chinese Digital Economy by Lin Zhang. Copyright (c) 2023 Columbia University Press. Used by arrangement with the Publisher. All rights reserved.
My primary motive in undertaking this study was to better understand what the concept of entrepreneurship meant to Chinese like my cousin, for whom it was not just a new way to make a living but also a means of self-reinvention. We are witnessing an international effort to rebrand “labor” as “entrepreneurialism.” IT entrepreneurship, in particular, is often celebrated in corporate, policy, and academic discourses for its potential to drive innovation and generate flexible self-employment opportunities for everyone.
The idea is simple: anyone can be an entrepreneur, but it is incumbent upon individuals to reinvent themselves—that is, to leverage their unique backgrounds and social networks to ride the tidal wave of technological progress. Yet, in touting the universal accessibility of entrepreneurship while ignoring the inherent structural unevenness of contemporary global capitalism, advocates are perpetuating the system’s inequalities while offloading the burdens of labor reproduction onto individuals. To aggregate a white middle-class Silicon Valley start-up founder, a Black immigrant Uber driver in London, and a Chinese peasant craftswoman into the category of “tech entrepreneur” is to elide their vastly different class, ethnic, national, racial, and geographic backgrounds and thereby conceal, rather than confront or ameliorate, the structural inequalities that define their disparate access to resources. In idealizing market-based and culturalist solutions, entrepreneurialism seeks in the alliance between developmentalism and culturalism (whether multiculturalism, nationalism, or Confucian familism) solutions to structural problems inherent to global financial capitalism. By calling on individuals, despite their vastly different capacities, to reinvent themselves as entrepreneurs, entrepreneurialism not only legitimizes state and corporate offloading of social responsibilities to “entrepreneurial” individuals (or families) but also seeks to dismiss structural inequalities by resorting to cultural exceptionalism and individual choices.
In this book, I recenter labor in the process of entrepreneurship while also seeking to redefine “labor” in ways that better fit our present context of proliferating entrepreneurialism, mounting inequalities, and global unevenness. My analysis is grounded in the everyday lived experiences of Chinese through an empirical approach that combines ethnography with sociohistorical analysis. This geocolonial- and feminist-informed materialist and substantive theoretical grounding distinguishes my approach from both neoclassical individualistic accounts of capitalism and those based in the subjective theory of value or culturalist approaches.
Instead of endorsing U.S.-centric liberal capitalist universalism (the Washington consensus) or arguing for an alternative premised on Chinese exceptionalism (the so-called China model), my approach was framed by what Arif Dirlik terms the “China paradigm.” Rather than search for an established model to be emulated, I sought to identify a set of “procedural principles” by which global forces have been articulated to local conditions and needs while remaining attentive to “the possibilities and limitations of concrete local circumstances as well as location in the world.”
In the process, I argue that the proliferation of entrepreneurial labor in post-2008 China is the product of a spatiotemporally and culturally specific process in which global elements were incorporated to reinvent both national and individual selves. China, anxious to tackle challenges like technological dependency, growing social inequalities, and slowing economic growth after 2008, has embraced global trends like financialization, platformization, and entrepreneurialization in a bid to facilitate the restructuring of its economy. However, instead of representing a radical break with the past, these global trends have been articulated in the country’s centralized minimalist governance tradition, according to which the Chinese economy is embedded in and made to fit the multipronged national, social, and developmental goals of the Chinese state while also being shaped by the country’s decentralized network of local governments and the continued prominence of the family as a unit of both economic production and social reproduction and protection.
To what extent have China’s efforts toward collective and individual entrepreneurial reinvention helped resolve the multiple crises that have emerged since the late 2000s? The answer is mixed. In contrast to the euphoria for entrepreneurial progress of the corporate/state nexus, the existing labor of entrepreneurial reinvention has unfolded along zigzag trajectories shot through with contradictions. By adopting a financialized approach to entrepreneurializing technonationalism, social equity, and development, the state has repurposed socialist toolkits to effectively mobilize resources and talents and spearheaded the development of strategic industries, all while maintaining centralized command over the process of financialization. However, tensions between its goals of developmentalism, technological independence, and social redistribution, as well as conflicts of interest between central and local authorities, have spawned new forms of financialized risks, rent seeking, and precarity.
In a similar vein, the reinvention of family production through platformization and entrepreneurialization since 2008 has helped energize China’s new digital economy, attenuating the negative effects of the global financial crisis on economic growth and employment and providing marginalized social groups—peasants and peasant workers, disadvantaged urban youth, and women—with new economic opportunities and choices. However, the continued failure to address the crisis of care has intensified contradictions between the valorization of the individualized entrepreneur and the reality that productive and reproductive labor in rural China remains both highly collective and family-based. This has deepened inequalities along gender, class, and geographic lines, as well as between mental and manual laborers.
In following China’s own historical trajectory, the stories in this book can be read as a supplement, if not a modest counterweight, to the proliferation of accounts of China in the English-speaking world since the late 2000s, which reflects my own thinking about the politics of producing knowledge about China for English-speaking readers in an atmosphere of escalating U.S.-China tensions. In the years immediately following the 2008 global crisis there was a boom in Sinocentric stories, generally told from the perspective of Western business and tech leaders, that reimagined the country as a new frontier of technological progress and the world’s newest economic engine. In unpacking romanticized depictions of Shenzhen by American maker advocates, investors, and corporate suits, Silvia Lindtner smartly noted the ways these narratives were colored by “colonial tropes of adventure, frontierism, and of ‘going back in time.’”
Emerging in parallel to these rose-tinted tales was a wave of alarmist accounts of the rising “China threat.” These either tapped into anticommunist sentiments to hype up the CCP’s ambitions for world domination or adopted orientalist tropes to sell essentialist depictions of the country’s economic model. The crest of this wave wasn’t a book but a 2020 tweet sent by Republican Senator Marsha Blackburn proclaiming that “China has a 5,000 year [sic] history of cheating and stealing.” These hawkish depictions of China were given a boost when the Trump administration launched a trade war against the country in 2018, fueling a bipartisan hardening of attitudes.
Yet the underlying narratives that fuel them are nothing new. In explaining Americans’ changing attitudes toward the Cultural Revolution, from that of radical enthusiasm in the 1960s and 1970s to wholesale condemnation since the 1980s, the historians Arif Dirlik and Meisner Maurice highlighted the long history of Euro-American societies freezing non-European cultures in time and refusing “to take history seriously where China is concerned.” The result was a kind of “condescending veneration” born of Westerners’ admiration of “China for its mystifying antiquity combined with a condescending attitude toward Chinese resistance (or inability) to become more like ourselves.”
Such condescension was on vivid display in the recent debate over whether the United States had “failed” in its post-1970s policy of engaging China to make it more like the West. If anything, the latest surge in China bashing in the United States since the late 2010s, like the previous shifts documented by Dirlik and Maurice, is less a specific response to China and more about uniting the United States against a common enemy to paper over domestic divisions, thereby “making America great again.”
As I have shown throughout this book, China has in fact changed significantly since rejoining the capitalist world system in the 1970s. And in many respects, including pursuing financialization, building scientific infrastructure, and promoting IT entrepreneurship, China has closely followed in America’s footsteps. China’s post-2008 reinvention, though it may have had the effect of destabilizing American global hegemony, has mainly been propelled by a desire, if not an anxiety, to overcome its own structural problems and contradictions in the wake of its integration into this same American-led global capitalist system, including technological dependency, overproduction, uneven development, and crises of ecology and care. Yet it is also true that it has maintained a distinct trajectory, one influenced by its imperial, revolutionary, and socialist traditions and conditioned by the country’s geographical limitations and ever-shifting position in the global capitalist world order. By framing the continuities and ruptures that characterize China’s post-2008 labor of entrepreneurial reinvention as the results of an ongoing experiment to articulate global forces to local conditions, this book takes a different approach from narratives of China told from the perspective of the current American-led world order.
This brings me to my second point: the importance of recognizing the spatiotemporally and culturally specific nature of the China paradigm. Being attentive to the specificities of the China paradigm helps us better situate China’s experiences relative to those of other countries at different historical conjunctures without losing sight of the heterogeneity, inequalities, and unevenness that exist within China. By telling three distinct stories of China’s post-2008 reinvention, from urban, rural, and transnational angles, respectively, I have shown how the country’s economic restructuring has produced both winners and losers and demonstrated how national and collective efforts toward reinvention have been experienced differently by variously situated individuals.
I have also sought to highlight the specific ways in which China’s economy is embedded in central-local state politics and family institutions. In doing so, I challenge the state/market antithesis and neoclassical assumptions about the autonomous individual as a rational economic subject. This emphasis on specific Chinese experiences should not be interpreted as an argument for Chinese exceptionalism, nor should it be confounded with efforts, often championed by the Chinese government, to construct an idealized “China model” that can be emulated by other countries. The strong roles played by the state and family in the Chinese economy are not unchanging or culturally essential. Rather, they are products of China’s distinct historical and cultural trajectories and institutional evolution.
With regard to state/market relations, the active role played by the Chinese state in industrial policy hardly makes it an outlier. When now-developed economies such as Britain and the United States were at an early stage in their industrialization, their respective states played a central role in creating and regulating markets—when they weren’t intervening in market activity outright. The United States and other major industrialized economies all leaned heavily on active industrial policies between the 1930s and 1960s, under which the state invested in infrastructure and key industries. For the first few decades after World War II, most industrializing countries, including those in East Asia and Latin America, adopted a similar state-led development model to achieve relatively high and stable growth rates.
Nor is China alone in its reliance on the family as a provider of welfare and an agent in socioeconomic and political reproduction. Similar patterns can be found in other industrialized and industrializing nations in Asia, southern Europe, and Latin America. According to sociologists Theodoros Papadopoulos and Antonio Roumpakis, the continued prominence of family-based labor in these regions should not be seen as symptoms of domestic “rudimentary development” but rather as “outcomes of the ways in which these national political economies were integrated into regional and global economies as (semi-)peripheries.”
The neoliberal shift beginning in the 1970s, characterized by the global hegemony of the Washington consensus and the post–Cold War international expansion of financialized capitalism, led to the ascendancy of neoliberal market fundamentalism worldwide. Yet, although it formed a partial alliance with global neoliberal forces, China’s state-led gradual reintegration into the global capitalist system and its entrenched rural/urban dual economic system not only set it apart from developed nations at the center of the neoliberal world order but also set it on a distinct path relative to many other emerging economies undergoing neoliberalization.
The years following the 2008 global financial crisis represented a watershed moment not only for China but for the entire neoliberal world order, one marked by the rise of entrepreneurialism and the concurrent resurgence, in many national economies, of state power and the “familization” of social risks in the face of proliferating insecurity, instability, and precarity. Decades of financialized global capitalism have wreaked havoc on national economies around the world, and the resulting mix of weak labor protections, high inequality, and debt-financed economic bubbles created the conditions for entrepreneurialism’s rise. In this sense, China’s post-2008 entrepreneurial reinvention, though built on the country’s centralized minimalist tradition and a continuation of its distinct developmental trajectory over the previous decades, is a spatially specific manifestation of a global shift, in which national economies, to overcome global risks and economic instability, have reembedded themselves in state and family institutions. Unfortunately, as historian Jake Warner has observed, anxiety and insecurity at both the popular and elite levels in both countries have made it convenient to blame structural problems of the global system on individual countries, and I would add, on individual groups and persons, in the case of surging racism and exophoria.
As I was putting the finishing touches on this book, the world found itself mired in yet another major crisis, this time triggered by the global Covid-19 pandemic. For months after the new coronavirus was first identified in the central Chinese city of Wuhan, international borders were blocked, embassies closed, and international flights canceled as people retreated into their homes and relied on their families for support. This abrupt disruption of our global interconnectedness has forced countries around the world to reprioritize safety, protection, and security over market-based freedoms and to rethink once again an already beleaguered neoliberal policy regime.
Under the dual pressure of the “zero-covid” policy and U.S. sanctions, China rolled out a new developmental strategy known as “dual circulation” in May 2020. The announcement was a response to not just the ongoing pandemic but also escalating geopolitical tensions with the United States as the Trump administration pursued a strategy of economic and political “decoupling.” China’s plan puts greater emphasis on “common prosperity” and the “internal circuit” of the domestic market— which it hopes to stimulate through rural rejuvenation, poverty reduction, investments in “green” technologies, and reregulation of monopolistic digital platforms and overheated industries such as real estate and after-school education—over the increasingly unstable and unpredictable “external circuit” of export and international trade. In this, the dual circulation strategy represents a continuation of the country’s post-2008 entrepreneurial reinvention, which has consistently attached great importance to boosting indigenous innovation and domestic consumption. However, it also further ramps up state intervention in all aspects of social life beyond the economy in the name of national security and social control and protection. Many commentators outside of China have come to view this new political and economic shift as “China’s Red New Deal,” ushering in the nation’s own progressive check on decades of runaway “capitalism with Chinese characteristics.”
Not coincidentally, the Biden administration, despite resistance and blockages from both the GOP and within the Democratic Party, has been pushing forward the “Build Back Better” bill that vows to improve middleclass welfare, combat urgent challenges of climate change, and grow the U.S. economy “from the bottom up and the middle out.” The Senate’s “Innovation and Competition Act” and the House’s updated version of “America COMPETES Act,” which strategically target “China” as a foil to America’s technological competitiveness, quickly garnered bipartisan support.
What this suggests is that despite escalating geopolitical conflicts based on ideological differences, the world’s two biggest economies are in many ways converging as they both seek to bolster the state’s role in economic planning while reemphasizing domestic redistribution and economic security over neoliberal principles like market freedom. As the world moves past the neoliberal “era of small government and unlimited globalization,” China’s post-2008 experiences offer valuable insight into the potential benefits and pitfalls of state-led financialization and technology-driven entrepreneurialization of labor as strategies for dealing with shared problems like technological inter-dependency, slowing growth, and unbalanced and uneven development. The question that will likely haunt us in the years to come is whether the United States and China—the world’s biggest economies—can find a way to coexist peacefully in their respective, converging paths of reinvention.
Excerpted from The Labor of Reinvention: Entrepreneurship in the New Chinese Digital Economy by Lin Zhang. Copyright (c) 2023 Columbia University Press. Used by arrangement with the Publisher. All rights reserved.
Other English-language book excerpts available on Pekingnology