Theses Doctoral

Domesticating Biotechnological Innovation: Science, Market and the State in Post-Socialist China

Coplin, Abigail Elizabeth

Biotechnological innovation is simultaneously globalizing and localizing. While ambitious scientists and thriving companies operate in a transnational environment, national leaders perceive domestic innovation as a source of international power and of domestic regime legitimacy. My work leverages these tensions between nationalism and globalism to identify mechanisms by which the micro-level dynamics of Chinese state capitalism co-produce scientific expertise, political power, and social critique in China’s agrobiotechnology industry. By examining how this happens in an authoritarian, technocratic, post-socialist nation, I show that exclusively focusing on biotech development in advanced liberal-democracies has reified particular institutional arrangements as “essential” to biotech innovation. This myopia limits our understanding of how such innovation can occur under other state and market organizing principles.

Since the birth of the American biotechnology industry, scholars have tried to elucidate the institutional conditions catalyzing biotech growth and decipher the new organizational forms, scientific identities, and governance dilemmas accompanying its rise. Debates rage, for example, over whether “free market” forces or government policies kindled the biotech boom. Others examine how biotech firms translate between the logics of the market and science, how universities normalize academic entrepreneurship, and what configurations of capital, research organizations, and commercial firms boost the emergence of vibrant clusters. Ultimately, however, biotechnological development is not “simply a matter of advances in science and technology, but a product of complex entanglements among knowledge, technical capability, politics, and culture.”

My dissertation explores these entanglements in China. Employing in-depth interviews with key actors, observational field research, and textual analysis of Chinese media, I show how the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) deployment of nationalist ideologies reshapes and runs up against a science-driven industry of national importance. I contend that China’s approach to developing biotechnology centers on the principle of “technological domestication”, whereby fears of technologically-induced pollution and natural/artificial transgression surrounding genetically modified (GM) technology are recast into an opposition to foreign aggressors, be they countries, companies, or individual actors.

Centrally, I argue this nationalist frame is not merely ideological rhetoric, but a principle of institution building that uniquely mixes science, business and the state. As in a chemical reaction, the bonds and boundaries among these entities are restructured and a new compound synthesized, distinct from the sum of its parts. This nationalist “technology” permeates and structures each level of the agrobiotech project: how this nationalist frame fundamentally shapes the nature of business alliances within the agrobiotech sector, the chimeric organizational forms taken by commercial enterprises and academic laboratories, career trajectories spanning science, the market, and the state, professional identities embodied in the industry, and ultimately, even the contours of social criticism leveled against the technology. I aver that while the technological domestication frame enables Chinese firms and entrepreneurs to dominate Chinese technology markets and create novel—and often transgressive—organizational forms, career trajectories and professional identities, it also facilitates the party-state’s “taming” of these actors and the technologies they produce, as the system rewards the development of technologies that reinforce state power and requires ritualistic performances from the firms and academic entrepreneurs operating within it. Overall, while showing the construction of “biotechnology with Chinese characteristics” to be a socio-technical imaginary with meaningful technical, organizational, and moral consequences, I identify an alternative trajectory of knowledge economy development, reveal logics of state capitalism, and determine limits of expert co-option within a single party authoritarian regime.

Geographic Areas


This item is currently under embargo. It will be available starting 2024-07-22.

More About This Work

Academic Units
Thesis Advisors
Eyal, Gil
Ph.D., Columbia University
Published Here
September 27, 2019