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January 18, 2023

The Gilded Cage: Techno-State Capitalism in China

Event Series: Chinese Politics and Economy Research Seminar Series


Using Daniel Bell’s work as a springboard, in her forthcoming book The Gilded Cage: Techno-State Capitalism in China (2023) Ya-Wen Lei analyzes the emergent post-industrial society in China, focusing on China’s techno-development from the mid-2000s to the present day. Noting the extraordinary transformation of China’s economy and society during this time, some scholars have compared China’s post-reform period to the Gilded Age in the United States. By contrast, Lei seeks to highlight the darker implications of these changes, referring to China’s “gilded cage” to capture the dynamic processes and relations set in motion by the Chinese state’s effort to move from an economy relying on labor-intensive, export-oriented manufacturing to techno-state capitalism.

This drive has included the proliferation of technological and legal instruments established by the state and large technology companies to regulate work and life and to enhance legibility, valuation, efficiency, and behavior modification, along with the legal, economic, and cultural subordination of work, workers, and forms of capital deemed “obsolete” or “low-end” to those valorized as “high-tech” or “high-end,” despite China’s official socialist ideology. It also incorporates the intensified subjection of both “low-end” and “high-end” workers and capital to the precarious and despotic rule by instruments. In this talk, Lei will explain how this sweeping, lopsided, and unchecked rule by instruments came to be and discuss the contradictions between the state and different kinds of capital and labor that have followed in its wake.

This academic seminar is jointly sponsored by the Department of Sociology, Department of Government and the Initiative for U.S.-China Dialogue on Global Issues at Georgetown University.


Ya-Wen Lei is an associate 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 (2018). Her second book, The Gilded Cage: Techno-State Capitalism in China, is forthcoming with Princeton University Press in fall 2023. She has published in general sociological journals (American Sociological Review, American Journal of Sociology, and Socius), specialized social science journals (Law and Society Review, Work, Employment and Society, and Political Communication), and a China studies journal (The China Quarterly). Her publications have received various awards from the American Sociological Association, the Law and Society Association, and The China Quarterly—the leading interdisciplinary journal in China studies.