April 17, 2018
Gabriele de Seta on China’s digital entrepreneurs, infrastructures and platforms
Edward Tse, China’s Disruptors: How Alibaba, Xiaomi, Tencent and Other Companies are Changing the Rules of Business (Portfolio, 2015), 272 pp.
Clay Shirky, Little Rice: Smartphones, Xiaomi, and the Chinese Dream (Columbia Global Reports, 2015), 128 pp.
Duncan Clark, Alibaba: The House that Jack Ma Built (Ecco, 2016), 304 pp.
For political economist Yu Hong, China and the communications industry are two leading engines of the post-2008 global economy. It is then not surprising that their intersection – often discussed under the shorthand of ‘Chinese Internet’ – has been a powerful attractor for academic research while also fueling the popular fascination with a world of Internet cafes, Great Firewalls, videogame gold farmers, Internet addiction camps, shanzhaismartphones, exotic online cultures, and the seemingly impossible coexistence of subversive performativity and pervasive surveillance.
The arrival of consumer Internet access in China in the mid-1990s has largely coincided with the heydays of the World Wide Web, so that for a vast majority of Chinese Internet users shang wang [‘going on the net’] was from the very beginning synonymous with opening a browser window and surfing across webpages. This has been the case up to the sweeping shift to smartphones and mobile connectivity of the early 2010s, which unmoored the world’s largest national population of Internet users from the limitations of wired access, and drastically reconfigured the very fabric of the ‘Chinese Internet’ by splintering it across the walled gardens of mobile operating systems and apps.
Observed from a slightly different angle, the historical development of ICTs in the People’s Republic of China can be understood as a technical shift from infrastructures to platforms. While infrastructural developments (from the earliest Internet backbones to the ongoing wireless networking of the country) have been consistently supported by government policies with the goal of achieving national informatization (guojia xinxihua), the recent decade has seen the emergence and consolidation of entrepreneurially-driven Internet companies that owe their successes to the adoption of a platform model. And yet, as homegrown digital platforms encroach upon telcos with their own infrastructural ambitions, national infrastructure providers embrace platform features to reclaim their slices of market shares and the fleeting attention of an online population that has today reached nearly 800 million users.
Given its relative novelty, this shift from infrastructures to platforms – along with the resulting friction, osmosis and hybridization between the two models – has been largely unaccounted for in academic literature, which often still reduces the ‘Chinese Internet’ to a nationally-bounded partition of the ‘global’ Internet or as a linguistic and cultural cluster of the World Wide Web. Indeed, infrastructures and platforms are both objects of inquiry that easily slip through the theoretical sieves of established disciplinary approaches, and grasping their increasingly pivotal role in Chinese society will require methodologies complementing the breadth of political economy with the nuance of digital ethnography, while also drawing on the insights offered by more interdisciplinary fields like infrastructure studies and platform studies.
A vast majority of current discussions about digital platforms and their infrastructural ambitions focuses on the “Big Four” that are often earmarked under the acronym GAFA (Google, Apple, Facebook, and Amazon). In his Platform Capitalism, Nick Srnicek describes how these companies share the common trait of having transformed a single product (a search engine, a smartphone, a social networking service, an e-commerce website) into a platform offering free services and capable of generating revenue through the exploitation of network effects and the extraction of user data. In the Chinese context, the GAFA companies are commonly mirrored by the BAT (Baidu, Alibaba and Tencent) trio of local platform companies that currently dominates the national Internet market. Similarly developed into platforms from pre-existing web search, e-commerce or entertainment services, the BAT companies have consolidated their dominance through acquisitions and investments in domains ranging from big data and AI to logistics and finance.
The Stack model, along with its speculative mutations that attempt to prototype planetary-scale computation through color gradations (the opaque black of cybernetic black boxes, the sanguine red of post-autonomist politics), offers glimpses of sociotechnical assemblages to come and design futures that might never be. And yet, by grounding their claims in a largely Euro-American experience of infrastructural imperialism and platform capitalism, these formulations overlook a geopolitical site where a different sort of Stack is already consolidating its interlocking layers: China. When framed against the American hegemony over the global Internet, the Chinese case arguably appears as the only example of a booming digital economy built on top of increasingly nationalized infrastructures and compliant homegrown platforms, shielded from competition and disruption by techno-nationalist policies and authoritarian censorship measures. In China, two decades of state-led ICT development and a conception of cybersovereignty elevated to foreign policy spearhead have carved out a geopolitical enclave in which computational architectures and informational actors are coming together into what could be deservedly termed the Red Stack.
Discarding the flattened idea of a ‘Chinese Internet’ and peering into the Red Stack requires a radical theoretical and methodological shift, and it is not surprising to find little in terms of existing literature that would even begin to pin down infrastructural networks, outline platform ambitions, or evaluate the agency of both entrepreneurs and state authorities in shaping the sovereign contours of this accidental architecture. Yet, similarly to two decades ago – when comprehensive studies of the Chinese Internet were yet to be conducted, and insights into the bubbling potentialities of ICT development were offered by market analysts, business advisors and pioneering scholars – the Red Stack has already begun to be charted piecemeal across market evaluations, business insights and academic reports.
Tse is a consultant who draws on two decades of familiarity with Chinese entrepreneurs in order to give prominence to the central role of this new social class in shaping China’s digital future. Shirky is a tech writer who examines the smartphone brand Xiaomi as an example of how tech companies achieve innovation thanks to their embrace of platform dynamics. Clark is a former investment banker and financial expert who reflects on his first-hand experiences among Chinese entrepreneurs to weave a detailed biography of Jack Ma and his e-commerce platform Alibaba.
China’s Disruptors does not explicitly discuss the Red Stack from the perspective of infrastructures or platforms, but it senses its looming presence at the center of the country’s digital economy. Edward Tse’s goal is straightforward: foregrounding the Chinese entrepreneurs who have been setting up the companies that drive a large part of China’s economic growth, arguing that private enterprise must be given more credit for the country’s transformation than political leadership. Tse’s volume proceeds by alternating overviews of business trends with examples from the history of companies including Haier, Huawei, Alibaba, Xiaomi and Tencent, peppering his account with personal details about their founders – the “disruptors” of China’s digital markets who are radically changing the country and making waves in the global economy.
It is figures like Zhang Ruimin, Ren Zhengfei, Jack Ma, Lei Jun and Pony Ma who are the protagonists of Tse’s book, convincingly credited with creating “an economy largely outside the direct control of the government,” and yet at times uncritically praised as insightful market geniuses able to predict financial crises and adapt to China’s volatile political atmosphere. But, besides the encyclopedic value of chronicling the four waves of Chinese entrepreneurs, what shines through Tse’s writing is how these individuals assume a key role in the consolidation of the Red Stack. From Zhang Ruimin’s emphasis on turning his consumer electronics multinational Haier into an entrepreneurial platform, to Jack Ma’s destabilizing move into the infrastructural domain through Alibaba’s launch of payment and financial instruments, China’s Disruptors evidences the role of entrepreneurs in occupying infrastructural gaps with their platform companies and solidifying their grasp over key service industries while the precarious legal status of their businesses nudges them into compliance and connivance with government authorities.
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