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Open Access Publications from the University of California

Producing China's Innovative Entrepreneurship: Nationalism, Cultural Practices, and Subject-Making of Transnational Chinese Professionals

  • Author(s): Chen, Kun
  • Advisor(s): Ong, Aihwa
  • et al.

China is rapidly transforming into one of the world's most powerful economies, and the state encourages technological innovation to ensure that this trend continues. In particular, the state entices its citizens to receive education abroad and then return home to apply particular experience and expertise to their homeland's continued development. Yet despite these apparent advantages, Chinese technological products are generally not competitive with Western ones in the global market. Why does this paradox exist? This dissertation explores this puzzle, focusing on how technological innovation is being re-defined and produced by the Chinese government as well as by transnational Chinese professionals within the context of the global economy.

Through archival research, discourse analysis, and 12 months of participant observation and interviews in Beijing, China, I arrive at the following conclusions. First, innovation development in China is constructed by the state as a political imagination driven by nationalistic entrepreneurialism. I call this mode of innovation development "imagined innovation." Moreover, through governing specific people and constructing nationalistic discourses, the state aims at consolidating capital, expertise, and other resources at the transnational level to reinforce state sovereignty. While this nationalistic strategy is successful in attracting foreign-trained Chinese to return to China in order to develop indigenous innovation, these professionals, labeled as "Haigui," also face various cultural obstacles in their everyday operations, which at times impede original innovation from taking place, due to the utilitarian nature of imagined innovation that favors political agendas and economic profits over cultivating original creativity.

Nationalistic entrepreneurialism creates conditions in which Haigui can mainly rely on the efficient imitation and modification of Western technologies to gain competitive advantages in the Chinese market. However, driven by professional entrepreneurialism, Haigui also find themselves uniquely situated to identify innovative markets as well as develop socially creative practices to manage Chinese employees and promote their products. They do so in part through objectifying themselves by drawing on their cross-cultural experience, thus enabling them to flexibly develop technological and entrepreneurial practices. I call this form of subject-making "reflexive subjectivity" to illustrate how Haigui engage in reflexive thinking as they negotiate the difficult terrain of state power, market variations, and cultural differences.

Therefore, I use the term "innovative entrepreneurship" to articulate the dynamic and multiple ways in which innovation is understood and produced in China under global influences. It is a constellation of political strategies, cultural practices, and business ethics that aims to build technological innovation in heterogeneous socio-cultural contexts. Ultimately, the rise of China in the global economy poses new questions about how to conceptualize innovation, as well as its relationship to international and Chinese markets. This research offers a new perspective on contemporary Chinese culture and politics with respect to innovation, and its arguments offer theoretical contributions as well as insights for policymakers and prospective Haigui entrepreneurs.

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