Despite a reputation for abstruse thought, the French intellectual Michel Foucault once explained his research in a straightforward manner: “I set out from a problem expressed in the terms current today and I try to work out its genealogy. Genealogy means that I begin my analysis from a question posed in the present.” Keyu Jin took that approach to heart in The New China Playbook, a work that explains China’s present by tracing its economic genealogy since 1978. 

Sometimes one ends up reviewing the book one read rather than the one that was written. Lin Zhang’s The Labor of Reinvention: Entrepreneurship in the New Chinese Digital Economy is more sociology than tech, more labor theory than business. But it is also a granular, grass-roots, bottom-up view of the past couple of decades of the development of China’s digital landscape. As such, she provides color and detail to the developments that have been covered in a far more generalized and ad hoc way as business stories.

There is a general consensus that in 1820, China had the world’s largest economy. By the end of the century, it was suffering from an existential crisis. Much ink, scholarly and otherwise, has been spilled as to what went “wrong” and why; somewhat less common are discussions as to how China came to terms with the new globalized reality and what it, and Chinese society, did to emerge from the other side.

In 2014, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi closed the Planning Commission, which he accused of stifling the country’s growth and being a holdover from the country’s time as a socialist country. It was an ignoble end to the government body, which in the early days of independence charted the country’s Five-Year Plans for economic development.

The Labor of Reinvention: Entrepreneurship in the New Chinese Digital Economy, Lin Zhang (Columbia University Press, March 2023)
The Labor of Reinvention: Entrepreneurship in the New Chinese Digital Economy, Lin Zhang (Columbia University Press, March 2023)

From start-up founders in the Chinese equivalent of Silicon Valley to rural villages experiencing an e-commerce boom to middle-class women reselling luxury goods, the rise of internet-based entrepreneurship has affected every part of China. Problematizing worldwide euphoria about digital entrepreneurship while complicating the dichotomy of “China threat vs. China model”, The Labor of Reinvention attends to the everyday labor of digital-centered entrepreneurial reinvention vis-à-vis China’s national remaking amid global technological transformations and changing geopolitical currents.

“Thou art the ruler of the minds of all people, dispenser of India’s destiny. Thy name rouses the hearts of the Punjab, Sindh, Gujarat and Maratha, of the Dravida, Orissa and Bengal.” Thus begins Rabindranath Tagore’s Jana Gana Mana. In 1939, Jawaharlal Nehru traveled to Calcutta and received Tagore’s blessing to make it India’s national anthem. That meeting took place in the home of Prasant Chandra Mahalanobis. Equal parts flawed, driven, and brilliant, Mahalanobis went on to steer the Five-Year Plans that promised to catapult India into modernity. Nikhil Menon’s new book Planning Democracy: Modern India’s Quest for Development captures this technocrat in full: how he amassed and exerted influence, and how reality fell short of his ambitions.