Fairbank Center: On Books – Prof. Ya-Wen Lei with Dinda Elliott

In the first of our new video series, Fairbank Center: On Books, we talk to Ya-Wen Lei, Professor of Sociology at Harvard University, about her just-published new book, The Gilded Cage: Technology, Development, and State Capitalism in China (Princeton University Press, 2023). Executive Director Dorinda (Dinda) Elliott discusses with Professor Lei the motivation behind her research and unpacks what the phrase “gilded cage” means—as well as its future implications for China’s political economy.

Professor Lei details the tools the government has used to encourage—and control—high-tech industries, including special modes of resource distribution and legal responses. And while acknowledging the stunning growth of China’s tech industry over such a very short period, Lei pays particular attention to how economic development has fueled acute income disparities. She shines light on the lives of real people—from delivery couriers controlled by sophisticated delivery apps to factory workers forbidden to talk during their shifts—who seemed trapped in a cruel new techno-capitalist society. Lei sees the “Gilded Cage” as a system that prioritizes efficiency, rational calculation, and above all, control.

Watch the full talk via the Vimeo embedded video below or on YouTube.

The Gilded Cage: Technology, Development, and State Capitalism in China

Princeton University Press: November 21, 2023

How China’s economic development combines a veneer of unprecedented progress with the increasingly despotic rule of surveillance over all aspects of life

“Lei traces how China saw the rise of a techno-developmental regime in response to the 2008 financial crisis, and how this new economy has created anxiety and instability among workers, who toil long hours under draconian control by companies employing new digital technologies of surveillance.”

Ho-fung Hung, Johns Hopkins University