Who gets to be a tech entrepreneur in China?

We live in an age where the concept of being an entrepreneur is increasingly broad. It’s often hard to slot occupations—hosting a podcast, driving for Uber, even having an OnlyFans account—into the traditional definitions of employment vs. entrepreneurship.

Of course, this is not a strictly Western phenomenon; it’s happening all over the world. And in China, it’s also transforming how people work—but with the country’s own twists. 

I recently talked about this with Lin Zhang, assistant professor of communications and media studies at the University of New Hampshire and author of a new book: The Labor of Reinvention: Entrepreneurship in the New Chinese Digital Economy. Based 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, particularly those working within the digital economy.

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

Tech platforms, which have provided entry points to the digital economy for many new entrepreneurs, also joined the government’s campaign. Jack Ma, founder of the e-commerce empire Alibaba and a 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 so, too.” Alibaba often touts itself as a champion of small online businesses and even invited one rural seller to its bell-ringing ceremony in New York in 2014. (Eventually, the relationship between the state and moguls like Ma would become much more fraught, though the book focuses on people who use platforms like Alibaba, rather than on the country’s tech titans who founded them.) 

At the core of this campaign is an alluring idea the country’s most powerful voices are reinforcing: Everyone has the chance to be an entrepreneur thanks to the vast new opportunities in China’s digital economy. One key element to this promise, as the title of Zhang’s book implies, is that to succeed, people have to constantly reinvent themselves: leave their stable jobs, learn new skills and new platforms, and take advantage of their niche networks and experiences—which might have been looked down upon in the past—and use them as assets in running a new business.

Many Chinese people of various ages and genders, and of differing educational and economic backgrounds, have heeded the call. In the book, Zhang zooms in on three types of entrepreneurs:

  1. Silicon Valley-style startup founders in Beijing, who have capitalized the most on 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 crafts into profitable businesses.
  3. Daigou, the often-female resellers who buy luxury fashion goods from abroad and sell them to China’s middle-class consumers through gray markets on social media.

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

Let’s 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 who came back to the countryside after working in the city and reinvented themselves as entrepreneurs selling the local traditional product—in this case, clothing or furniture woven from straw. 

Zhang found that while some of the owners of e-commerce shops became well-off and famous, they only shared a small slice 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 those workers when bragging about entrepreneurship in rural China.

“For the older women, they know that inequality exists, but a lot of them are working for their kids, so they normalize it,” Zhang says. “But still, there is a kind of exploitation there based on the uneven redistribution of the profits.”

To be fair, the living conditions of everyone involved in such entrepreneurial experiments often improve, from the top of the chain to the bottom. But it’s not the rosy egalitarian picture state actors and Big Tech like to paint. In fact, entrepreneurship seems to selectively benefit people with a certain background. In rural villages, it’s the young people who have learned how to use the internet in cities; in Beijing, it’s the startup founders with prestigious university educations or employment experience at state-owned firms; for luxury resellers, it’s the people who already have the privilege to move across borders freely and have the fashion sense to build personal brands.

So while entrepreneurship in China can at times break down barriers between genders, classes, and other social backgrounds, it also reinforces other boundaries—like how Taobao sellers double down on the idea that internet-based innovation skills are more valuable than the gendered, manual labor of manufacturing products.

I also found another takeaway from the book fascinating: As these experiments blur the definitions of worker and entrepreneur, it’s increasingly difficult to apply the traditional approaches of labor rights and organizing. 

Rural Taobao sellers are simultaneously managers and laborers: they do intellectual work and physical work, and they exploit others but they also self-exploit. These individuals typically don’t have a clear class consciousness, either; are the sellers middle-class professionals or working-class laborers? Even Zhang is unsure. These are just some of the reasons why labor organizing is difficult in China today.

As the platform economy in China has pulled back in the last three years, due to both the country’s general economic downturn and a specific focus on taming Big Tech, the preoccupation with entrepreneurship has cooled a bit, too. “That kind of optimism about tech entrepreneurship is already normalized in a way. It’s not like in the beginning, right after 2008, when you had all these people talking about co-working space, innovation, and all that,” Zhang says. “Innovation… has to be subjected to all these political imperatives now. We’re definitely in a new era.”

The market itself is also changing constantly, making some of the entrepreneurs in the book already out of fashion. Being a rural e-commerce owner is no longer the splashy job it was 10 years ago. While the book doesn’t cover the most recent dynamics, Zhang told me she’s noticed new forms of entrepreneurship sprouting from the ones she studied. Some tech founders in Beijing have moved on to crypto ventures, and many e-commerce sellers and luxury resellers have embraced livestreaming to become influencers. These new jobs will surely create their own distinct social effects, for better or worse. 

It can be hard to identify these consequences as we live through the reinvention cycle, but it’s nevertheless important to understand them, as we’re all affected. In fact, it’s happening directly to us—to Zhang, to me, and probably to you.

“The line between entrepreneurship and labor can become really blurred for any of us,” Zhang says. “Even for academics, we kind of have the imperative to become entrepreneurs, like to sell our books and do all that, right?”

Do you think of yourself as an entrepreneur? Tell me more about it at zeyi@technologyreview.com.

Catch up with China

1. Xiongan is a new city being built 60 miles south of Beijing; progress has been slow, but it’s a grand experiment of urban tech systems and social engineering. (Foreign Policy $)

2. China may soon become the second-largest exporter of passenger cars in the world, just behind Japan. (Bloomberg $)

3. After years of lying low, TikTok is trying a new lobbying strategy: aggressively speaking up for itself. (New York Times $)

4. To stop its population from shrinking further, China will make fertility services like IVF more accessible. (New York Times $)

5. Young women, often rookie protesters galvanized by feminism, have become the new face of dissent in China. (Wall Street Journal $)

  • Several women who participated in the protests against China’s zero-covid policies last year were recently arrested. (New York Times $

6. China’s CDC finally released data on covid testing results and covid-related deaths, showing that the current wave of infection has peaked. (Reuters $

7. Apple users in Hong Kong were temporarily blocked from browsing certain websites—reportedly a result of a blacklist maintained by Tencent. Neither Apple nor Tencent has explained exactly what happened. (The Intercept

Lost in translation

In the summer of 2022, over 2,000 Chinese people came to Dali, a laid-back city in the southwest, for a Web3 “conference.” The government called off the originally planned confab three days before it was scheduled to open, so participants turned it into a truly decentralized event instead—spontaneous gatherings popped up in the bars and cafes of Dali. The city became a hub for the remaining Web3 enthusiasts in China.

However, when a reporter from the Chinese publication Connecting was sent to Dali for a few weeks in September to befriend the Web3 community, he saw neither cryptography experts nor bitcoin traders, but a group of idealistic young people—hippies, geeks, artists, yoga teachers—who used the vague promises of crypto to talk about their discontent with society and meet like-minded people. To me, it sounds like the “DAOs” (Decentralized Autonomous Organizations) in Dali resemble outcast student groups more than anything else. Perhaps that’s why the new Dali residents gave the city a nickname, “Dalifornia,” as it is full of people with romantic and often unrealistic dreams of using technology to create a better world.

One more thing

Hey, you got a call from … Chinese President Xi Jinping? 

As part of its Lunar New Year promotion campaign, the Chinese state broadcaster has shared a simulated WeChat call page on social media. Clicking on the “answer” button will lead you to a video of Xi’s holiday speech. I’m not sure this has had the intended effect. Er, how would you feel if this suddenly popped up on your screen?

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