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, shanzhai smartphones, 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.
Benjamin H. Bratton has extensively theorized “the Stack” as a model useful to navigate the vertical overlaying of infrastructures and platforms with the geopolitics of informational and national sovereignty. For Bratton, the Stack is the result of various sorts of planetary-scale computation, coming together to form an “accidental megastructure” that is also a new architecture of sovereignty. While Bratton rubrics the future configurations of this accidental megastructure under the looming image of a “Black Stack,” Tiziana Terranova proposes to reimagine a new nomos of the post-capitalist commons as a “Red Stack,” composed by the three transversal and nonlinear levels of virtual money, social networks, and bio-hypermedia.
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.
Three recent volumes, Edward Tse’s China’s Disruptors, Clay Shirky’s Little Rice, and Duncan Clark’s Alibaba, approach this emerging computational architecture from strikingly different points of view. 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.
Clay Shirky’s Little Rice is a very different book – a short report that reads for the most part as a journalistic primer about Chinese modernity, technological innovation and digital media, divided in eight chapters dedicated to topics ranging from “Smartphones” and “Internet” to the “Maker movement” and “The Chinese Dream.” But it’s the Xiaomi smartphone (a Mi3 model that the author buys on a whim at a small stall in an electronics mall, to be specific) that leads readers into a compelling if short overview of the Chinese company that designs and produces it. For Shirky, Xiaomi’s release of the Mi3 model in 2013 represents a turning point in Chinese electronics manufacturing that Western observers haven’t yet managed to grapple with: the emergence of “a company that can create products that aren’t only made in China, but designed in China, and beautifully so.”
Xiaomi is described as the design-oriented watershed between shanzhai manufacturing of cheap knockoff devices destined to low-income markets and the delocalized manufacturing of high-end devices for global brands – helmed by its founder Lei Jun, the company has managed to beat Samsung’s presence on the Chinese market while also becoming a competitive e-commerce firm by just selling its own products online. Shirky traces back the complex design, production and supply chains leading to his Mi3 smartphone, observing how this category of electronic devices has become a fundamental indicator of modernity: “Hamburgers illustrate something about global economics; mobile phones do all that and illustrate something about geopolitics as well.” From harking back to China’s pragmatic embrace of Westphalian sovereignty through techno-national protectionism to explaining the platform features of Xiaomi’s beginnings as a UI design company, Shirky’s smartphone functions as a user-friendly (albeit somewhat simplistic) computational window from which to peer into the geopolitical depths of the Red Stack.
Alibaba is grounded on Duncan Clark’s close proximity to Jack Ma and extensive engagement with China’s digital entrepreneurship: the author moved to the country in 1994 and met Jack Ma in 1999, becoming an adviser for Alibaba right after its founding in a Hangzhou apartment, guiding its international expansion strategy during the dot-com boom. The book is rich in personal details about China’s most iconic digital entrepreneur, ranging from his folk hero antics to his love for martial arts author Jin Yong. Largely structured as a biography of Jack Ma, it follows his entrepreneurial formation from his youthful curiosity for everything foreign and his beginnings as a teacher to his encounter with the Internet during a trip to the U.S. and his early struggles with setting up profitable digital businesses.
Beyond the intriguing first-hand insights into Jack Ma’s personality, managerial style and entrepreneurial intuition, Clark’s account of Alibaba’s transformation from a B2B intermediary to a platform company offering C2C marketplaces, electronic payment services, cloud computing, health insurance and financial instruments sketches a quite clear blueprint of how the Red Stack comes into place. Jack Ma’s own concept of the “iron triangle” articulates how his company’s success is grounded not only in its core e-commerce services, but also in its equally important investments in logistics and finance. One of the central turning points described by Clark in gripping detail – Alibaba’s unrelenting push of eBay out of the Chinese market – serves as a textbook example of the interconnected role of entrepreneurs, investors and authorities in shaping the Red Stack. Alibaba offers no overarching analysis of China’s digital economy, but it is impossible to miss the computational ambitions seeping through rhetorical claims and advertising narratives; as Jack Ma put it as early as 2007, during a speech given to investors on the occasion of Alibaba’s Hong Kong IPO: “We have the chance to build a platform that could become the Internet ecosystem for all of China.”
None of the authors of the three books surveyed in this essay explicitly mention the Red Stack nor any comparable speculative prototype, and yet the presence of this assemblage looms behind their observations as they delve into China’s digital media ecologies from different entry points: entrepreneurs, infrastructures, and platforms. Is the Red Stack merely a techno-nationalist intensification of statist control over the flows of planetary computation or, as Bratton has recently proposed, an example of a hemispherical Stack jostling with an increasingly crowded multipolar patchwork of sovereign claims? The question has barely started to be formulated. As a situated and accidental megastructure composed by territories, energies, computational devices, protocols, interfaces and populations welling up against China’s national and informational borders, the Red Stack is an uncharted architecture waiting for its surveyors.
Benjamin Bratton, “The Black Stack,” e-Flux, 2014, no. 53.
Benjamin Bratton, The Stack: On Software and Sovereignty (MIT Press, 2015).
Scott Galloway, The Four: The hidden DNA of Amazon, Apple, Facebook and Google (Bantam Press, 2017).
Nick Srnicek, Platform Capitalism (Polity Press, 2017).
Tiziana Terranova, Red Stack Attack! Algorithms, Capital and the Automation of the Common (EuroNomade, 2014).
Yu Hong, Networking China: The Digital Transformation of the Chinese Economy (University of Illinois Press, 2017).
Dr. Gabriele de Seta is a media anthropologist. He has recently completed a Postdoctoral Fellowship at the Institute of Ethnology, Academia Sinica in Taipei, Taiwan. His research work, grounded on ethnographic engagement across multiple sites, focuses on digital media practices and vernacular creativity in contemporary China. He is also interested in experimental music scenes, Internet art, and collaborative intersections between anthropology and art practice. More information is available on his website http://paranom.asia