Digital Capitalism, Labor, and Institutional Transformations

My monograph Labor of Reinvention: Entrepreneurialism and the Remaking of China after 2008 is the first book to provide a multifaceted view of the new entrepreneurial labor practices emerging out of China’s thriving IT scene. Combining decade-long multi-sited ethnography and socio-historical research, the book recounts stories about young IT start-up entrepreneurs (mostly male) vying for venture capital backing in Beijing’s Zhongguancun (ZGC); peasant migrant workers who return from the city to their home village in Northeast China to open family e-commerce businesses trading village-produced handicrafts; and transnationally mobile, young middle-class Chinese women who make a living by re-selling Western brands via social media. Collectively, these accounts about contemporary urban, rural, and transnational China form a larger picture of how the remaking of the Chinese selves unfolded in tandem with the co-construction of an entrepreneur-centered flexible work culture and information economy, presenting a unique perspective into China’s post-2008 socioeconomic restructuring and the post-crisis IT-driven reinvention of global capitalism.

In this book, I delve beyond the worldwide hype of techno entrepreneurial optimism to uncover the hybrid, culturally specific, and contradictory labor of entrepreneurial self-reinvention. I deconstruct the universal promises of entrepreneurial optimism that have emerged in post-2008 China as the state, market, and individuals search for solutions to restructure the nation’s unsustainable model of development, made acute by the 2008 global financial crisis and accelerated by the recent US-China trade war. I show that the entrepreneurial labor of self-reinvention, does not make a radical break with the past, as some have argued, but rather rearticulates global technological and economic shifts within existing regimes of production and systems of meaning, and reasserts the global trends of labor individualization with the cultural-specific making of subjectivities at the intersection of gender, class, and locale. I argue that the post-2008 proliferation of IT entrepreneurship in China has simultaneously opened up new opportunities to make life under capitalism more livable, while giving rise to new forms of financial precarity, contradiction, and inequality. By bringing digital labor studies into conversation with China studies, the book intervenes into both fields to challenge and amend the former’s Western bias and the latter’s lack of attention to digital labor practices. Ultimately, Reinvent Yourself! recounts tales of the creativity and struggle of ordinary people in highly uncertain times as they make the best out of what capitalism (or for that matter, socialism) has to offer.

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I am extending theoretical questions raised in my research on global digital capitalism, labor, differences, and geopolitics to new empirical sites and urgent conjunctural issues. Building on my interest in digital platforms, I am examining China’s ongoing reconfiguration of platform capitalism from macro political economic, mezzo institutional, and micro subjective perspectives in comparison to the US, EU and other national/regional efforts to regulate Big Tech. This is reflected in a series of ongoing research endeavors in various stages of development, including my coauthored paper on “A spatiotemporal approach towards platform capitalism in China” (Media, Culture & Society, R&R), my single-authored paper under preparation “Women’s entrepreneurial labor at the Margins” (to be submitted to the Journal of Peasant Studies), and the collaborative edited book volume tentatively titled The Digital Future: ICT Developments in Post-2008 China (currently seeking a contract).