Transnational Economies, Digital Labor and Globalization: Exploring Chinese Entrepreneurs’ Mobilities and Connections

Panel organizers

Beatrice Zani (University Tuebingen; ENS Lyon)
Yu-chin Tseng (University Tuebingen)


Antonella Ceccagno (University of Bologna)


KWON, Jaok (Heidelberg University)
Jamie Coates (University of Sheffield)
Iris Polyzou (French School of Athens)


Beatrice Zani (Tübingen University, ENS Lyon)
TSENG, Yu-chin (Tübingen University)
LI, Yong (ENS Lyon)
LI, Zhipeng (University of Poitiers)
LING, Tang (University of Hongkong)
Claudia Astarita (IAO Lyon)

Panel abstract

Globalization together with contemporary social, economic, and technological transformations have strongly intensified Chinese migrants’ mobilities across and beyond Asia. The ramification and complexification of Chinese migratory paths have created novel opportunities for local and global interconnectedness, transnational social networks, and globalized commerce. In this respect, the growing use of information and communication technologies (ICT) and digital applications by migrants requires new scrutiny. Clearly, ICT represent an effective tool for migrants to keep in touch with their country of origin and with multi-sited networks. No doubt that ICT generate profound changes in the ways people on the move build bridges between what is ‘here’ and what is ‘there’ by the a. Yet, what catches our attention is the way these support the setting and development of entrepreneurial activities across transnational spaces.

In this panel, we investigate the novel link emerging between Chinese migrations, entrepreneurship, and ICT in the global world. We call into question long-established paradigms in migration studies to apprehend the intricacy and dynamism of Chinese migrant entrepreneurs’ mobilities and commercial activities, produced and performed inside physical and digital spaces. Through a comparative approach, across ad beyond Asian borders, we ascertain the necessity to bring together different empirical research and case studies to capture the novelty and the complexity of such transnational mobilities and digitalized commercial activities. Challenging the traditional dichotomy ‘country of origin and country of arrival’, it urges to explore the multiple connections across space, borders, social networks and markets enabled by ICT, of which the application WeChat (微信), massively used by Chinese people, is illustrative of. At the same time, transnational entrepreneurship and e-commerce cannot be simply associated to new forms of global interconnection. They call into question established taxonomies of ‘bottom-up’ and ‘top down’ globalizations and suggest the emergence of new cosmopolitanisms. Broadly, they show the hybrid, syncretic and dynamic shape that globalization can take at the crossroad between mobilities, global economy and digital worlds. In this respect, the digitalization of labor and the transnationalization of trading bring about the transgression of borders and contestation of markets , which also deserve attention. Thereby, the analysis must consider the presence of local and global social, economic and moral inequalities and hierarchies Chinese migrant entrepreneurs need to cope with within the different spaces invested by their mobilities. Such a scrutiny of social inequalities can be associated with individuals’ repertories of competences, imaginaries, and aspirations, which help to overstep structural constraints to mobilize resources to succeed both in migratory and entrepreneurial projects.

This pluri-disciplinary panel aims at proposing a cutting-the-edge reflection on the novel physical and digital, local and global entrepreneurial practices by Chinese migrant entrepreneurs. This panel aims at promoting pluri-disciplinary reflection, debate but also at publishing. Based on conference papers, we intend to submit a special issue to an international peer-reviewed journal (our target may include: The Journal of Current Chinese Affairs, Critical Asian Studies, The China Quarterly).

Beatrice Zani & TSENG, Yu-chin: Digital Markets, Migration and Entrepreneurship: crossed-perspective on Chinese ‘connected’ entrepreneurs between Italy and Greece

Drawing on ethnographic work in Italy (Milan) and Greece (Thessalonica), including over 50 biographical interviews with Chinese young (18-35 years old) migrant entrepreneurs, as well as participant observation of the entrepreneurship they develop, this paper investigates the link between mobility, digital platforms, entrepreneurship and globalization. In the digital age, in Italy and in Greece, the entrepreneurial activities of Chinese migrant entrepreneurs are increasingly performed through digital platforms, of which WeChat is illustrative of. Based on the multiple affiliations capitalized during pluri-migrations, and transnational social networks, Chinese migrant entrepreneurs become ‘connected’ and generate creative business at the crossroads between physical and digital worlds. Despite the differences in terms of social and economic regimes they are inscribed in in the Italian and Greek contexts, the commercial trails of the products they commercialized between their country of origin and of arrival draw the contours of transnational, digitalized and networked commercial geographies of globalization. The low-value commodities (food provision, clothes, electronics, jewelry, etc.) commercialized are part of novel made-in-little, virtual global distribution chains. The study of the migratory biographies of Chinese ‘connected’ entrepreneurs, and the commercial geographies of the commodities illustrate the novel shapes that globalization can take. Such a conceptualization calls into question the traditional dichotomy between bottom-up and top-down globalization and helps to identify its hybrid and mutable forms.

LI, Zhipeng: The development of Chinese ethnic food trade in France: the case of “Belleville”

Chinese immigration in France can be recognized in two distinct flows: a post-colonial emigration originating from the Southeast (from the former French Indochina: Cambodia, Vietnam and Laos) and an emigration generating directly from China, mainly (but not only) from the province of Zhejiang. These two flows have different migratory histories, even if the general scheme of their economic and social integration is similar. In Paris, the Chinese ethnic businesses are distributed in two ways: a broad dispersion all over the town and dense concentrations in some districts. This presentation focuses on these concentrations. The survey focuses on businesses and services. This researcher has been conducted in Belleville (where Wenzhou’s most businesses focus) and in the Triangle de Choisy (where Chaozhou businesses are mainly located) in 2012. This paper will describe the current situation and compares it with the forms of economic activities during the 1980s. The analysis of the evolution of food retailers will illustrate the changing of business strategies regarding their ethnic visibility.

LING, Tang:  Burning out in the digital economy in China:  E-commerce, platform economy and social networking economy

The political science literature related to Southeast Asia refers to  This paper elaborates on how businesswomen burn out, especially since the digital economy in China has increasingly drawn on emotions. Emotional capitalism is a concept proposed by Eva Illouz (Illouz, 2007) and developed by Han Byung-Chul (Han, 2017, pp. 41-49). On the one hand, emotions have tied one tighter to capitalism; on the other hand, through emotions, one finds meanings beyond capitalism. In other words, the emotions have created values and meanings beyond cold economic transactions as well as a vicious cycle of self-exploitation. I address the dual characteristics of emotional capitalism in three sectors of digital economy: E-commerce, platform economy and social networking economy. Firstly, by comparing E-commerce platforms Amazon and Taobao, I show how sellers in China are required to engage more in aesthetic labour and emotional labour, and especially in constructing an emotional closeness with customers, in order to make the consuming experience fun and enjoyable. I worked for three years for the online platform-based educational company X. I use my experience to describe how the boundary between friend and customer/seller are blurred in the platform economy. The porous boundary pushes both the seller and customer to do more “free” labour for each other, not only for the capitalistic review system, but also for shared value and possibly affect that the seller and customer develop for each other. Arguably, what the customer and seller develop could be better understood with concepts derived from guanxi studies that include renqing (norms of interpersonal behaviours) and ganqing (affect). I end this paper with an analysis of social network marketing platforms that sees all social relations as potentially monetizable guanxi, enduring interpersonal relations consists of both instrumental and expressive aspects.

LI, Yong:  The e-commerce of infant milk among Chinese migrant women in France: morality, gender performance and transnational social ties

This paper examines the entrepreneurship of Chinese women in France who sell formula milk through WeChat to buyers in China to increase their personal income, a micro-trade that grew out of the growing need of Chinese consumers for safe baby foods after the melamine infant formula scandal of 2008 in China. It shows how gender helps to structure milk transactions and give a moral dimension to the social ties formed between sellers in France and buyers in China, who are mostly young mothers confronted with feeding issues. Benefiting from the border-crossing mobility of French goods, the middle-class buyers in China can be partially free from concerns about food safety issues, whilst the sellers in France are content with the morality of assisting motherhood. Although the sellers and buyers might be strangers to each other in this transnational and moral market, friendship between them developed and flourished through the novelty of exchanging “foreign” and “local” experiences of motherhood in this globalized virtual space.

Claudia Astarita: International education, digital worlds and entrepreneurial awareness: a case study based on the experience of Chinese students in France

Globalization has triggered a remarkable growth in the number of international students enrolling in institutions outside their countries of citizenship. Students’ experiences of transnational mobilities tend to have a deep and significant impact on their identities, on their views of themselves, their families and friendship networks, their country of origin, their host country, and the world.

This paper explores the impact of transitional mobility from another perspective, the one of students’ understanding and actual exploitation of entrepreneurial opportunities in the host country. Grounded on a longitudinal study conducted among Chinese students based in France, this article highlights if, how, and under which circumstances students’ mobility is understood and exploited as a new source of economic opportunities, as well as the role played by real and digital Chinese communities already residing in the host country to push newcomers into new entrepreneurial paths and experiences.  Also, the paper starts reflecting on the consequences of these entrepreneurial experiences in a host country on the same students that are expected to go back to the People’s Republic of China after completing their studies in France.