History, Culture & Society Workshop (In Person)


Friday, October 7, 2022, 12:00pm to 1:30pm


William James Hall, 33 Kirkland Street, Room 1550

"The Gilded Cage: Techno-State Capitalism in China"


Ya-Wen Lei, Faculty Associate. Associate Professor, Department of Sociology, Harvard University.


Jess Viator

Cosponsored by the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences and the Department of Sociology, Harvard University.

Lunch is provided if you RSVP. Please send an email to Jess Viator by Wednesday, October 5.

Faculty Sponsor:

Orlando Patterson, Faculty Associate. John Cowles Professor of Sociology, Department of Sociology, Harvard University.


Using Daniel Bell’s work as a springboard, I analyze the emergent post-industrial society in China, focusing on China’s techno-development from the mid-2000s to the present day. Noting the extraordinary transformation of China’s economy and society during this time, some scholars have compared China’s post-reform period to the Gilded Age in the United States. By contrast, I seek to highlight the darker implications of these changes, what I refer to collectively as China’s “gilded cage.” I use this term to capture not so much a literal space as the dynamic processes and relations set in motion by the Chinese state’s effort to move from an economy relying on labor-intensive, export-oriented manufacturing to techno-state capitalism. The drive towards techno-state capitalism has included: (1) the proliferation of technological and legal instruments established by the state and large tech companies to regulate work and life, and enhance legibility, valuation, efficiency, and behavior modification; (2) the legal, economic, and cultural subordination of work, workers, and forms of capital deemed “obsolete” or “low-end” to those valorized as “high-tech” or “high-end,” despite China’s official socialist ideology; and (3) the intensified subjection of both “low-end” and “high-end” workers and capital to the precarious and despotic rule by instruments. In this talk, I will explain how this sweeping, lopsided, and unchecked rule by instruments came to be, and discuss the contradictions between the state and different kinds of capital and labor that have followed in its wake.


Ya-Wen Lei is an Associate Professor in the Department of Sociology at Harvard University. She is also affiliated with the Fairbank Center for Chinese Studies and the Weatherhead Center for International Affairs at Harvard. She is the author of The Contentious Public Sphere: Law, Media, and Authoritarian Rule in China (Princeton University Press, 2018). Her second book, The Gilded Cage: Techno-State Capitalism in China, is forthcoming with Princeton University Press in Fall 2023. Her work has appeared in American Sociological Review and American Journal of Sociology, among other peer-reviewed journals. Her publications have received various awards from the American Sociological Association, the Law and Society Association, and The China Quarterly.