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

by Ya-Wen Lei, Professor of Sociology at Harvard University

Princeton University Press
ISBN 9780691212821
November 21, 2023 
416 Pages


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. Lei draws on groundbreaking fieldwork and a wealth of in-depth interviews with managers, business owners, workers, software engineers, and local government officials to describe 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. 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. While some have compared China’s extraordinary transformation to America’s “Gilded Age,” this provocative book 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.

Fairbank Center: On Books Interview

Ya-Wen Lei with Fairbank Center Executive Director Dorinda (Dinda) Elliott unpacks the meaning of “gilded cage”—as well as its future implications for China’s political economy.

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