Recent studies suggest that a phenomenon known as “social entrepreneurship” has emerged and been increasing in China over the past decade (Gu 2012; Zhao 2012; Zhao 2014; Zhou et al. 2013). In countries around the world, researchers have observed private citizens dubbed “social entrepreneurs” starting for-profit businesses to address localized problems related to poverty, access to education, and public health (Bornstein 2004; Dees 1998; Leadbeater 1997; Martin and Osberg 2007). Such issues are often linked to larger societal problems resulting from inequalities created by capitalism (e.g., LeRoy 2010; Piketty 2014; Stiglitz 2003).
Departing from the anti-capitalist rhetoric of the Mao years (1949-1976), the transition to a market economy in Reform Era China (1978-present) has replicated many of the inequalities being addressed by social entrepreneurs in other industrializing nations. Moreover, post-Mao government policies in China have heralded “the return of the god of wealth” (Ikels 1996), whereby individualism and materialism have become a means of governance (Hertz 2010:82; see also Farquhar 1996; Hoffman 2008; Kipnis 2007; Pun 2003; Yan 2010; Zhang and Ong, eds. 2008). Self-interest and the profit-motive have flourished since the early Reform Era, when teachers even began selling candy in classrooms (Chan et al. 1992:274). Thus, it is particularly interesting to find evidence of Chinese citizens who seem to be starting companies not only to make a profit but also to address local problems related to their country’s rapid industrialization.
At a time when China and the United States frequently clash over trade agreements, military agendas, and even international aid projects, Americans tend to be presented with a narrative of the Chinese as a calculating competitor, even a growing threat (e.g., Navarro 2015). These concerns are likely justified. Yet, the most populous country in the world is not simply defined by its government’s policies, both domestic and international. It is comprised, like ours, of individuals striving to create meaningful lives for themselves. They are not simply passive actors in a domineering political economy (e.g., Hsu 2007). In addition to potentially common enemies, the experience of seeking a moral life by working to improve their own country should resonate with Americans, and humanize a proud people whose aspirations are not so foreign from our own.