I recently spoke about this with Lin Zhang, associate professor of communication and media studies at the University of New Hampshire and author of a new book: Rethinking Work: 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 working in the digital economy.

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

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

At the heart of this campaign is an attractive idea, backed by the country’s strongest voices: everyone has a chance to become an entrepreneur thanks to the vast new opportunities of China’s digital economy. One of the key elements of this promise, as the title of Zhang’s book suggests, is that in order 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 experiences , who may have looked down on them in the past and used them as assets to drive new business.

Many Chinese people of different ages and genders, with different education and economic status, heeded the call. In the book, Zhang focuses on three types of entrepreneurs:

  1. Founders of a Silicon Valley-style startup in Beijingwho have profited most from the government’s obsession with entrepreneurship.
  2. Rural electronic sellers on the popular shopping platform Taobao, who employ their families and neighbors to turn local handicrafts into profitable businesses.
  3. Daigouoften women merchants 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 they all, despite their differences, show how entrepreneurship in China is failing to live up to its egalitarian promises.

Take Taobao’s rural sellers as an example. Inspired by a cousin who quit his factory job to become 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 turned themselves into entrepreneurs selling local traditional products. — in this case, clothes or furniture woven from straw.

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

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