Who becomes a tech entrepreneur in China?

Who becomes a tech entrepreneur in China?

Who becomes a tech entrepreneur in China?

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I recently discussed this with Lin Zhang, assistant professor of communications and media studies at the University of New Hampshire and author of a new book: The Work 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 people who have succeeded (at least temporarily) as entrepreneurs, especially those working in the digital economy.


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

Tech 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 be successful, then 80% of [the] young people in China and around the world can do it too. Alibaba often promotes itself as a champion of small online businesses and even invited a rural vendor to its ringing ceremony in New York in 2014. (Eventually, the relationship between the state and tycoons like Ma would become much more strained, even if the book focuses on the people who use platforms like Alibaba, rather than the country’s tech titans who founded them.)

At the heart of this campaign is an alluring idea that the country’s most powerful voices are reinforcing: everyone has the chance to be 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 to be successful, people must constantly reinvent themselves: quitting steady jobs, learning new skills and new platforms, and leveraging 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 from different educational and economic backgrounds, answered the call. In the book, Zhang zooms in on three types of entrepreneurs:

  1. Founders of Silicon Valley-style startups 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 crafts into profitable businesses.
  3. Daigouoften feminine retailers who buy luxury fashion items overseas 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 the example of rural Taobao sellers. Inspired by a cousin who quit his factory job and became a Taobao vendor, 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 have reinvented themselves as entrepreneurs selling the local traditional product. — in this case, clothing or furniture woven from straw.

Zhang found that while some e-commerce store owners became well-off and famous, they shared only a small portion of the profits with the workers they hired to grow the business – often older female relatives or neighboring households. And the state ignored these workers by boasting of the entrepreneurial spirit in rural China.


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