At a recent talk for the Fairbank Center’s Critical Issues Confronting China series, Ya-Wen Lei, Professor in the Harvard Department of Sociology, assessed the rise of techno-capitalism from the vantage of real people, both those who have been made to bear its dehumanizing effects and those who have reaped its wealth benefits. To research her new book, The Gilded Cage: Technology, Development, and State Capitalism in China (Princeton University Press, 2023), Lei spent months interviewing factory workers, business owners, software engineers, and local government officials. Her research highlights the vastly unequal economic values assigned to different labor sectors and the policies designed to control both workers and capital. Lei’s background in both law and sociology (she holds an LL.M. and a J.S.D. from Yale Law School and a Ph.D. in Sociology from the University of Michigan) allows her to take a unique and multifaceted perspective on “a techno-developmental regime characterized by the expansion of instrumental power over the people by means of new technologies and new legal norms,” to quote this talk’s moderator, Susan Greenhalgh, John King and Wilma Cannon Fairbank Research Professor of Chinese Society in the Harvard Department of Anthropology. The conclusions drawn by Lei present China’s gilded age as more of a gilded façade—emphasizing how rapid economic expansion has led to greater inequality and social exclusion.
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