Academic journal article China Perspectives

Beyond E-Commerce: The Social Case of China's Digital Economy

Academic journal article China Perspectives

Beyond E-Commerce: The Social Case of China's Digital Economy

Article excerpt

This special feature brings together three original articles on Internet finance, grassroots programmers, and an e-psychotherapy platform, respectively, to engage in the ongoing debate on China's e-commerce and digital economy. The three authors contribute to a rethinking of the Chinese digital capitalism from the perspective of sociology (Nicholas Loubere), anthropology (Ping Sun), and social psychology (Hsuan-Ying Huang). They pinpoint the role of commercial activities as vehicles to highlight human agency and diversity in China's transformations. The three articles- "China's Internet Finance and Tyrannies of Inclusion" by Loubere, "Programming Practices of Chinese Code Farmers" by Sun, and "Therapy Made Easy" by Huang-not only provide empirical studies of particular grassroots players or makers in China's e-commerce and digital economy, but also critically discuss their role and agency in negotiating the complicated network of power and knowledge to create a politics of difference in people's daily lives.

The special feature contributes to the debates on Chinese digital economy from a micro and meso-level analysis that is rooted in the humanities and social sciences. It examines the grassroots participants and makers of China's e-commerce boom, and at the same time moves beyond the discussion on e-commerce to critique the paradoxes of Chinese digital capitalism, as experienced by poor and disadvantaged individuals engulfed by entrepreneurial digital loan sharks and systems of social surveillance (Loubere), the second-generation-migrant grassroots programmers or code farmers in small software companies in Shenzhen (Sun), and an entrepreneurial psychotherapist whose online platform has taken on the mission of constructing a psychotherapy infrastructure for an under-developed profession (Huang). Together the three articles aim to redefine the "who" of digital economy as an unlikely collection of unimagined individuals and underrepresented groups; the "what" of digital economy as measured by its social and cultural impact rather than its volume of business and transaction; and the "how" of digital economy in terms of the implication of and impact on grassroots players in their strategies for survival.

In what follows, I provide a brief review of the emergence of digital economy in China, its incorporation into the state developmental strategy, and the role of digital labour in forming an invisible human infrastructure vis-avis the visible digital infrastructure and platforms. Such a discussion, though by no means thorough and comprehensive, provides the backdrop for the discussion of the various paradoxes of Chinese digital capitalism to be addressed in this special feature.

The rise of China's digital economy

It is known that China and digital capitalism are two pillars of global digital capitalism and that "China's digital economy is a global trailblazer" (Schiller 2000).(1) Despite being a latecomer to the new playing field of digital economy and the dominance of the US in global digital capitalism, China is poised to lead in digital productivity and innovation. This is a result of the state-centred approach to economic development and restructuring, with digital media, technology, and telecommunication as the new epicentre of economic growth and market reforms in the 2000s (Zhao 2008; Hong 2017a). Such a techno-economic discourse, particularly since the 2008 global financial crisis, emphasises developing cutting-edge digital technologies, platforms, infrastructure, and economy to ensure China's leadership in emerging technologies such as AI (artificial intelligence), VR (virtual reality), 3D printing, drones, robotics, and driveless cars. As Yu Hong (2017a) argues, the Chinese state plays a key role in fostering a sophisticated communicative ecosystem-a system that has been spearheaded by entrepreneurial bureaucrats, transnational capitalists and their representatives within and outside of China, an outward-looking middle-class, and China's own digital champions. …

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