My D.Phil Research: Indians in a Chinese Textile City: Middleman Traders in Upgrading Economy

Fortune Building (second from the left) and Diamond Building (third from the left) in Keqiao, Shaoxing. Over 500 Indian trade offices can be found in these two and other nearby commercial buildings in Keqiao. (Photo by the researcher, April 2010)

This D.Phil (Oxford's name for PhD) project investigates an emerging form of migrant entrepreneurship in the new flows of global migration. It attempts to unravel why the Indian middleman traders come to China, how they are grappling with the new entrepreneurial regimes in post-reform China and global capitalism, and how this process shapes their multilayered identities as both migrants and foreign entrepreneurs in twenty-one century's China. While China has continued to attract foreign investment targeted at its low-cost, less technically skilled workforce, it has also paid more efforts to attract foreign talents and capitals in advanced technologies that revolutionize the traditional export-dependent entrepreneurship. International textile export markets in coastal China are now embarking on this kind of industrial transformation, in which an increasing state-led capital invests in transforming the infrastructure of textile manufacture and its trade centres. In this sense, the upgrading discourse of traditional manufacture and trade sectors becomes the new political economy that mediates the work and lives of middleman traders in China today.

Shaoxing (see the Goggle Map below), as one of the most important centres of China's fabrics export, is subject to this force of change. Shaoxing has for a long time been an international hub of fabrics trading in China, in which that a large number of foreign middleman traders can be found. Most foreign traders come to Shaoxing because in Shaoxing's textile markets they can find relatively cheaply-priced textiles of reasonably good quality. Since 2008, the Shaoxing county government has become more involved in the local development of textile markets. A significant part of development policy directs at the possible ways to technologically and infrastructurally upgrade the local textile trade markets in order to increase its global competitiveness. Against this backdrop, advanced technical know-hows is now weighted more than traders' networks in the new landscape of Shaoxing's textile economy. Most foreign middleman traders in Shaoxing, however, lack the skills and resources to access any sense of technical capabilities. In fact, a majority of them are traditional middleman traders who rarely touch on the technological side of textile industries, let alone being capable of further developing it. In the local state's eyes, traditional tradership has no role and destines to disappear in the new entrepreneurial regimes. In other words, the foreign traders are now expected to reform their business strategies of post-reform China. The Indian middleman traders - as one of the most represented foreign mercantile groups and having settled for a decade in Shaoxing - face unprecedented pressure to invest in technology start-ups on new textile research and manufacture should they continue to do business in China's evolving textile markets. The nascent entrepreneurial regimes that emerge in this way raise new questions that disrupts some of the old certainties of entrepreneurship and that reframe the social contexts for migrant identity among these Indian middleman traders in Shaoxing.

From June 2011 to July 2012, the researcher is in Shaoxing on ethnographic fieldwork for this project. If you are interested in this project and in fact can provide information for it, please send email to

This research project is featured in the following places: Newsletter Hilary 2011, China Centre, University of Oxford; CUHK Alumni Magazine (December 2010); Journal of Shaoxing University (in Chinese).

The map shows the location of Keqiao, Shaoxing, in which many Indian trading offices can be found. Indian traders adored Hindu 'Om' sign outside their office in Shaoxing (Photo by the researcher, October 2011)