Rural e-commerce and the Persistence of Gender Inequality

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Rural e-commerce and the Persistence of Gender Inequality

Author | Affiliation:
Cara Wallis | Texas A&M University

Presenting at:
Panel 2A | Invisible Chinese Internet Users and Infrastructures


As the Chinese government and Internet companies have sought inroads abroad, they have continued to focus as well on developing rural areas under the assumption that informatization will bring growth and create more economic opportunities for rural residents. E-commerce in particular has been heralded as the latest (in a long line) of digital strategies for rural transformation. At the center of such efforts is Alibaba, who, often in partnership with government entities, has created thousands of Taobao Villages, defined as a village that generates at least 10 million RMB (US $1.6 million) annually from e-commerce or where there are at least 100 online stores or 10 percent of households doing ecommerce (Aliresearch, 2014), and Rural Taobao, a system of service centers in rural towns networked via a digital app (Li, 2017). Government and popular discourse on rural e-commerce has heralded the transformative power of such efforts (Aliresearch, 2017). Research on Taobao Villages has found that in some locales the rural economy has developed (Lin, Xie, and Lu, 2016), yet the few studies that have analyzed the gendered dimensions of such projects have found mixed results regarding women’s empowerment (Yu and Cai, 2019). This paper draws from research on micro-entrepreneurship and ecommerce undertaken by men and women in villages in Shandong province over the course of eight years of fieldwork offline and online between 2011 and 2019. The early phase of the research revealed that even women who were younger and had migration experience (often thought to be key factors leading to women’s empowerment in rural areas) had smaller social networks and more limited economic capital than their male counterparts, Thus, although their use of technology shifted certain gender norms and allowed them to benefit financially, deeply entrenched power differentials were not overcome and in some cases were even strengthened (Wallis, 2015). The latest phase of the research has focused on men and women who are engaging with Rural Taobao, and in some cases WeChat, for e-commerce and whether such engagement has led to economic and personal empowerment. The results reveal that despite the women’s business acumen and technological savvy, persistent structural impediments, such as lack of access to technological resources, and deeply entrenched patriarchal familial relationships limit their long-term success. Implications for policymakers in China and other parts of the Global South are also discussed.

About the author

Cara Wallis


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