BCCN Online Lecture Series #1: The Gilded Cage: Technology, Development, and Capitalism
Ya-Wen Lei (Harvard University)
This lecture series is hosted by the Berlin Contemporary China Network (BCCN), an initiative by researchers at Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin, Freie Universität Berlin, Max Planck Institute for the History of Science, Max Planck Institute for Social Anthropology, and Technische Universität Berlin. It is organized by Freie Universität Berlin. Here you can find an overview of the lecture series.
Since the mid-2000s, the Chinese state has increasingly shifted away from labor-intensive, export-oriented manufacturing to a process of socioeconomic development centered on science and technology. Ya-Wen Lei traces the contours of this techno-developmental regime and its resulting form of techno-state capitalism, telling the stories of those whose lives have been transformed—for better and worse—by China’s rapid rise to economic and technological dominance.
Drawing on fieldwork and a wealth of in-depth interviews with managers, business owners, workers, software engineers, and local government officials, Lei describes the vastly unequal values assigned to economic sectors deemed “high-end” versus “low-end,” and the massive expansion of technical and legal instruments used to measure and control workers and capital within them. She shows how China’s rise has been uniquely shaped by its time-compressed development, the complex relationship between the nation’s authoritarian state and its increasingly powerful but unruly tech companies, and an ideology that fuses nationalism with high modernism, technological fetishism, and meritocracy.
Some have compared China’s extraordinary transformation to America’s Gilded Age. This lecture reveals how it is more like a gilded cage, one in which the Chinese state and tech capital are producing rising inequality and new forms of social exclusion.
Ya-Wen Lei is Professor in the Department of Sociology at Harvard University. She is also affiliated with the Fairbank Center for Chinese Studies and the Weatherhead Center for International Affairs at Harvard. She is the author of The Contentious Public Sphere: Law, Media, and Authoritarian Rule in China (Princeton University Press, 2018). Her second book, The Gilded Cage: Technology, Development, and Capitalism, is forthcoming with Princeton University Press in November 2023.