Frontlines of Value

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The New Labor Landscape in the E-Commerce Ecosystem of China


E-commence in China, as one crucial component of the country’s New Economy, has developed and expanded rapidly in recent years. Largely relying on the self-regulated market mechanism, it has been hoped that the “free” growth of grassroots e-commence, by creating effective domestic consumption demand and absorbing “redundant labor force”, would solve the crises brought by the preceding export-oriented economic developmental mode. However, unregulated market, though in the beginning did create more employments (largely informal) and provide opportunities for some previously marginalized places and social groups, soon engendered malicious competitions, notorious counterfeit, and shrinking profit for mini-merchants and mini-entrepreneurs, while on top of that a few huge monopolistic ecommerce platform companies arose and expanded rapidly. During this process, a new labor landscape has emerged accordingly, with new categories of laborers being created and old categories being greatly expanded. Moving beyond the sleek high-technological aura of “electronic world trade platform,” this study digs deeper into the so-called “outer-net” to trace the “life track” of commodity in the ecommerce ecosystem, from its production to marketization and distribution, in order to investigate how labor has been refigured and reorganized along this chain. I adopt ethnographic research methods such as participant observation and interview as my primary tools, with the aid of the second resources such as documentaries, news reports, second literatures, as well as the primary resources including governmental documents and statistics. 

Ju Li is an associated researcher with the Frontlines project and an Assistant Professor of Sociology and Social Anthropology, Central European University, Budapest. Research interests: labor study, historical sociology, Globalization and critical development studies, the study of modern China, state socialist transformation, global history study, social history, oral history, and life course study. Her monograph, Enduring Change: The Labor and Social History of One Third-front Industrial Complex in China from the 1960s to the Present, is forthcoming. Her new project investigates the emerging new labor landscape under the E-commerce economy in China.