Digital Developmental Village: The Political Economy of China’s Rural E-Commerce
This dissertation investigates how rural e-commerce survives and thrives in resource-scarce rural China in the contemporary era. Building upon literatures on developmental state, state capitalism, industrial policy, and platform economy, this dissertation proposes a new theoretical framework, termed Digital Developmental Village, to understand China’s rural e-commerce development against rural China’s broader socioeconomic and politico-institutional contexts and the evolution of China’s political economy by underscoring three levels of interactions between the central government, local governments, e-commerce platform giants, and rural entrepreneurs.
This dissertation draws upon the data from in-depth interviews with different kinds of participants involved with e-commerce at different places in which e-commerce-related activities occur through multi-site fieldwork across six East China provinces, together with data from secondary data gathering, to scrutinize interactions of four parties at each level. At the national level, this dissertation investigates the coevolution of the Digital Developmental Village model and finds that the bureaucratic evolution and emergence of new economic sector initially created and subsequently developed by private actors will be eventually subjected to the influence of China’s state capitalism. At the local level, in consideration of the factors of local governance approach, the pre-existing robust local economic sectors, and migration patterns, this dissertation creates a typological framework to explore the formation of e-commerce villages in varied settings of the combinations of three factors above. At the individual level, this dissertation finds that rural e-commerce entrepreneurs may achieve economic successes through some more intense forms of embeddedness, which are deemed commercially unwise in the extant literature, within differing local socioeconomic and politico-institutional contexts in China. Lastly, this dissertation analyzes the expansion of the Communist Party of China into rural e-commerce in the business incubator role and sees such organizational expansion as the efforts to implicitly exercise control over rural e-commerce. In sum, through top-down policy directives and bottom-up party organizational expansion, the Chinese state has been gradually transforming rural e-commerce to a new form of state capitalism with potential global impacts, which can empower resource-scarce villages and infuse two kinds of industrial policies to stimulate technological advances.