Who can become a tech entrepreneur in China?

I recently spoke about this with Lin Zhang, assistant professor of communication and media studies at the University of New Hampshire and author of a new book: The Labor of Reinvention: Entrepreneurship in China’s New Digital Economy. Based on a decade of research and interviews, the book explores the rise and social impact of Chinese who have succeeded (at least temporarily) as entrepreneurs, especially those operating within the digital economy.

In the not so distant past it was China obsessed with entrepreneurship. At the Davos conference in the summer of 2014, Li Keqiang, China’s premier, called for a campaign of “mass entrepreneurship and innovation.” “A new wave of mass entrepreneurship … will keep the engine of China’s economic development alive,” he said.

Technology platforms, which have provided entry points to the digital economy for many new entrepreneurs, have also joined the government’s campaign. Jack Ma, founder of e-commerce empire Alibaba and former English teacher, said in 2018: “If people like me can succeed, then 80% of [the] young people in China and around the world can do this too. Alibaba often touts itself as a champion of small online businesses, and even invited a village vendor to its bell-ringing ceremony in New York in 2014. (Eventually, relations between the state and tycoons like Ma will become much more strained, though the book focuses on the people who use platforms like Alibaba, not the tech titans in the country that founded them.)

At the heart of this campaign is a compelling idea that the country’s most powerful voices support: Everyone has the chance to be an entrepreneur thanks to the vast new opportunities in China’s digital economy. A key element of this promise, as the title of Zhang’s book implies, is that to succeed, people must constantly reinvent themselves: leave their stable jobs, learn new skills and new platforms, and take advantage of their niche networks and experience – which may have been overlooked in the past and use them as assets in running a new business.

Many Chinese people of different ages and genders, as well as from different educational and economic backgrounds, heeded the call. In the book, Zhang examines three types of entrepreneurs:

  1. Founders of a Silicon Valley-style startup in Beijingwho have benefited the most from the government’s obsession with entrepreneurship.
  2. Rural e-commerce sellers on the popular shopping platform Taobao, who employ their own families and neighbors to turn local handicrafts into profitable businesses.
  3. Daigouoften-feminine overshoppers who buy luxury fashion goods from abroad and sell them to middle-class Chinese consumers through gray markets on social media.

What interests me most about their stories is how, despite their differences, they all reveal the ways in which entrepreneurship in China falls short of its egalitarian promises.

Take Taobao’s rural 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 who returned to the countryside after working in the city and reinvented themselves as entrepreneurs selling local traditional product—in this case clothing or furniture woven from straw.

Zhang found that while some of the e-commerce store owners became wealthy and famous, they only shared a small portion of the profits with the workers they hired to grow the business—often elderly women in their families or from neighboring households. And the state ignored these workers when it boasted about entrepreneurship in rural China.

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