China has been very successful developing its rural areas — and there are a lot of them. Reporting from in Hunan Province’s Dao County in 2017, Ian Johnson wrote in the New York Review of Books: Fengshushan “is a tribute to the development carried out by the dictatorship that runs China. When Tan first visited this village thirty years ago, it had no roads. A car drove him to a nearby town but he had to hike the remaining three miles up the mountain. The area was so poor that even a simple wristwatch was an unimaginable luxury, let alone electricity or running water. [Source: Ian Johnson, New York Review of Books, January 19, 2017]

Now, the path has been widened and surfaced with concrete slabs. As we picked our way up the mountain in our SUV, we passed a team of laborers expanding it into a paved road with guardrails. Electricity, water, and cell phone coverage were now givens. Many families sent their children to boarding schools in the nearby township, but for the very poor the state had provided a single-room schoolhouse. When we arrived, eleven children aged six to ten sat under Communist Party propaganda posters, learning math.

There is certainly a need for more effort and ideas on how to deal with China’s hollowed out villages. Michael Standaert of the BBC wrote: ““Over the past few decades, many rural villages have either been ignored and isolated because of their geography, or depopulated by years of flight of the best and brightest to urban areas in the east for jobs and education. These “left behind” villages often became empty shells, mostly inhabited by the old or the very young, only springing to life when families returned during the annual lunar new year holiday.” A graduate of China's best university, Peking University, reported in the China Youth Dailyon his return to his native Luling, in Jiangxi Province, and was shocked by the changes that occurred during his short absence: the disappearance of age-old village traditions, the pursuit of money above all else, and the poor education of children. [Source: Michael Standaert, BBC News, September 6, 2020; China Youth Daily, February 19, 2016]

Websites and Sources: Wikipedia article Wikipedia ; People’s Daily article

Hard Times in the Old Days

One of Peter Hessler’s students wrote, “My parents were born in a poor farmer’s family. They told us they had eaten barks, grass, etc. At that time grandpa and grandma had no open mind and didn’t allow my mother to go to school because she is a girl.” Recalling life in the 1960s, a woman in her 80s told the Los Angeles Times she worked all day in the fields and didn’t return home until after nightfall. ‘sometimes.” she said, “I would be hungry until 9 o’clock at night. We would lie in bed surrounded by mosquitos , to weak from hunger to fight them from biting us.”

In the old days strangers sometimes showed up and stole things, kidnapped women and children and killed people . Often villagers could do little but stuff their baskets with rice and run and hid in the mountains. Many if not most young people dreamed of escaping their villages and getting jobs and enjoying city life. In the old days the easiest way for a man to escape village life was to join the army. These days it is achieved by becoming a migrant worker or getting a job in a factory town or by working hard in school and attending university.

On two women in their 80s with bound feet in 2006, Jim Yardley wrote in New York Times: “When they were teenagers, China’s raging civil war between Mao’s insurgent Communists and the ruling Nationalists had almost overrun them. Every household, the women remembered, feared the Nationalist soldiers. Some people placed bowls of urine inside their homes to create a stench so vile that soldiers would not enter for fear of illness. Parents feared their daughters would be raped. “None of the parents wanted to keep older girls at home, ” Mrs. Wang recalled. “When the Nationalist soldiers came to Shenmu, young girls fled into the mountains, cut their hair and covered their faces with dirt.” [Source: Jim Yardley, New York Times, December 2, 2006]

“Mao remains a warm, if vague, memory, a giant delicacy than a monster. But the chaos that Mao ultimately inflicted upon China also became a memory. Mao’s disastrous program to collectivize agriculture and industry — the Great Leap Forward, from 1958 to 1960-left as many as 30 million people dead of starvation. “We were a big collective at the time, ” Mrs. Wang said of her region. “The people of all the different villages ate from the same pot.” Often, they ate weeds. “No one starved, but there were people who were hungry and got sick and died.”

“The Cultural Revolution followed and brought the arrival of angry Red Guards heeding Mao’s call to root out “bourgeois elements” from every corner of China. “It was dangerous, ” Mrs. Wang said. “They gathered all the landlords on the edge of a cliff and tossed them over.” These ideological campaigns passed through like violent, destructive winds, storms of different duration. But they did pass through. For most of their lives, Mrs. Wang and Mrs. Wu lived in isolation typical for peasants of their generation, never traveling far from their mountain village. The women say they did not notice when China opened itself to the outside world in 1978. Nearly three decades of astonishing economic growth have followed. They say they have not noticed that, either. Drought is what they noticed, and it finally pushed them out of the mountains. Mrs. Wang’s son left several years ago and found land beside the river in Laoshidan in western Inner Mongolia. One by one, family members followed, and now the son supports nine people.

On China in the 80s and 90s, Jiayang Fan wrote in The New Yorker: “I had experienced time travel...when my parents sent me to live with my father’s relatives, in rural Shanxi, for three months. If Chongqing in 1991 was, in retail terms, stuck in 1916, Shanxi was perhaps still in 1830. I didn’t know before I arrived that I wouldn’t see meat for three months; that the idea of easy access to a store, even a modest fuwushe, would be risible; or that hunger could feel like a demon clawing at your stomach. The only place to buy anything was at a weekly bazaar held in a village some distance away. When my cousins and I were hungry, which was always, we stole drying dates from a neighbor’s yard and climbed persimmon trees. My father’s birthplace wasn’t just poor. It was to a large extent pre-economic. People foraged, farmed, mended, bartered, exchanged favors. This gave the place a particular feel — foreign to me at first — which my aunt called “interwovenness.” The whole village behaved as one, because you needed the strength of the whole village simply to survive. “Everyone in the village is related to one another, once you go back enough generations, ” my aunt said, with satisfaction. “We are one family.” That web of relationships became your identity." [Source: Jiayang Fan, The New Yorker, July 23, 2018]

Collectivization and Class Status in Maoist China

The first major action to alter village society was the land reform of the late 1940s and early 1950s, in which the party sent work teams to every village to carry out its land reform policy. This in itself was an unprecedented display of administrative and political power. The land reform had several related goals. The work teams were to redistribute some (though not all) land from the wealthier families or land-owning trusts to the poorest segments of the population and so to effect a more equitable distribution of the basic means of production; to overthrow the village elites, who might be expected to oppose the party and its programs; to recruit new village leaders from among those who demonstrated the most commitment to the party's goals; and to teach everyone to think in terms of class status rather than kinship group or patron-client ties. [Source: Library of Congress]

“In pursuit of the last goal, the party work teams convened extensive series of meetings, and they classified all the village families either as landlords, rich peasants, middle peasants, or poor peasants. These labels, based on family landholdings and overall economic position roughly between 1945 and 1950, became a permanent and hereditary part of every family's identity and, as late as 1980, still affected, for example, such things as chances for admission to the armed forces, colleges, universities, and local administrative posts and even marriage prospects.

“The collectivization of agriculture was essentially completed with the establishment of the people's communes in 1958. Communes were large, embracing scores of villages. They were intended to be multipurpose organizations, combining economic and local administrative functions. Under the commune system the household remained the basic unit of consumption, and some differences in standards of living remained, although they were not as marked as they had been before land reform. Under such a system, however, upward mobility required becoming a team or commune cadre or obtaining a scarce technical position such as a truck driver's.

Decollectivization in China

Under the collectivized system, grain production kept up with population growth (China's population nearly doubled from 1950 to 1980), and the rural population was guaranteed a secure but low level of subsistence. But the collectivized system seemed to offer few possibilities for rapid economic growth. There was some discontent with a system that relied so heavily on orders from above and made so little allowance for local conditions or local initiative. In the late 1970s, administrators in provincial-level units with extensive regions of low yields and consequent low standards of living began experimenting with new forms of tenure and production. In most cases, these took the form of breaking up the collective production team, contracting with individual households to work assigned portions of collective land, and expanding the variety of crops or livestock that could be produced. The experiments were deemed successful and popular, and they soon spread to all districts. By the winter of 1982-83, the people's communes were abolished; they were replaced by administrative townships and a number of specialized teams or businesses that often leased such collective assets as tractors and provided services for money. [Source: Library of Congress]

“The agricultural reforms of the early 1980s led to a confusingly large number of new production arrangements and contracts. Underlying the variability of administrative and contractual forms were several basic principles and trends. In the first place, land, the fundamental means of production, remained collective property. It was leased, allocated, or contracted to individual households, but the households did not own the land and could not transfer it to other households. The household became, in most cases, the basic economic unit and was responsible for its own production and losses. Most economic activity was arranged through contracts, which typically secured promises to provide a certain amount of a commodity or sum of money to the township government in return for the use of land, or workshops, or tractors.

“The goal of the contracting system was to increase efficiency in the use of resources and to tap peasant initiative. The rigid requirement that all villages produce grain was replaced by recognition of the advantages of specialization and exchange, as well as a much greater role for markets. Some "specialized households" devoted themselves entirely to production of cash crops or provision of services and reaped large rewards. The overall picture was one of increasing specialization, differentiation, and exchange in the rural economy and in society in general. Rural incomes increased rapidly, in part because the state substantially increased the prices it paid for staple crops and in part because of economic growth stimulated by the expansion of markets and the rediscovery of comparative advantage.

Consequences of Rural Reform in China

Decollectivization increased the options available to individual households and made household heads increasingly responsible for the economic success of their households. In 1987, for example, it was legally possible to leave the village and move into a nearby town to work in a small factory, open a noodle stand, or set up a machine repair business. Farmers, however, still could not legally move into medium-sized or large cities. The Chinese press reported an increased appreciation in the countryside for education and an increased desire for agriculturally oriented newspapers and journals, as well as clearly written manuals on such profitable trades as rabbit-raising and beekeeping. As specialization and division of labor increased, along with increasingly visible differences in income and living standards, it became more difficult to encompass most of the rural population in a few large categories. During the early 1980s, the pace of economic and social change in rural China was rapid, and the people caught up in the change had difficulty making sense of the process. [Source: Library of Congress]

“The state retained both its powers and its role in the rural economy in the 1980s. Decollectivization, like the collectivization of the 1950s, was directed from the top down. Sometimes, apparently, it was imposed on communities that had been content with their collective methods. But in permitting households and communities greater leeway to decide what to produce and in allowing the growth of rural markets and small-scale industries, the state stepped back from the close supervision and mandatory quotas of the 1960s and 1970s.

“Decollectivization obviated the supervisory functions of lowlevel cadres, who no longer needed to oversee work on the collective fields. Some cadres became full-time administrators in township offices, and others took advantage of the reforms by establishing specialized production households or by leasing collective property at favorable rates. Former cadres, with their networks of connections and familiarity with administrative procedures, were in a better position than ordinary farmers to take advantage of the opportunities offered by the growth of markets and commercial activity. Even those cadres not wholly devoted to increasing their own families' income found that to serve their fellow villagers as expected it was necessary to act as entrepreneurs. Village-level cadres in the mid-1980s were functioning less as overseers and more as extension agents and marketing consultants.

“By 1987 rural society was more open and diverse than in the 1960s and 1970s, and the rigid collective units of that period, which had reflected the state's overwhelming concern for security, had been replaced by networks and clusters of smaller units. The new, looser structure demonstrated the priority placed on efficiency and economic growth. Basic security, in the sense of an adequate supply of food and guarantees of support for the disabled, orphaned, or aged, was taken for granted. Less than half of China's population remembered the insecurity and risks of pre-1950 society, but the costs and inefficiencies of the collective system were fresh in their minds. Increased specialization and division of labor were trends not likely to be reversed. In the rural areas the significance of the work unit appeared to have diminished, although people still lived in villages, and the actions of low-level administrative cadres still affected ordinary farmers or petty traders in immediate ways.

“The state and its officials still dominated the economy, controlled supplies of essential goods, taxed and regulated businesses and markets, and awarded contracts. The stratification system of the Maoist period had been based on a hierarchy of functionally unspecialized cadres directing the labors of a fairly uniform mass of peasants. It was replaced in the 1980s by a new elite of economically specialized households and entrepreneurs who had managed to come to terms with the administrative cadres who controlled access to many of the resources necessary for economic success. Local cadres still had the power to impose fees, taxes, and all manner of exactions. The norms of the new system were not clear, and the economic and social system continued to change in response to the rapid growth of rural commerce and industry and to national economic policies and reforms.

Increased commercial activity produced a high degree of normative ambiguity, especially in areas like central Guangdong and Jiangsu provinces, where rural economic growth was fastest. Neither the proper role of local officials nor the rights and obligations of new entrepreneurs or traders were clear. The line between the normal use of personal contacts and hospitality and extraordinary and criminal favoritism and corruption was ambiguous. There were hints of the development of a system of patron-client ties, in which administrative cadres granted favors to ordinary farmers in return for support, esteem, and an occasional gift. The increased number of corruption cases reported in the Chinese press and the widespread assumption that the decollectivization and rural economic reforms had led to growing corruption probably reflected both the increased opportunities for deals and favors of all sorts and the ambiguous nature of many of the transactions and relationships. The party's repeated calls for improved "socialist spiritual civilization" and the attempts of the central authorities both to create a system of civil law and to foster respect for it can be interpreted as responses to the problem. On the local level, where cadres and entrepreneurs were engaged in constant negotiation on the rules of their game, the problem was presumably being addressed in a more straightforward fashion.

Chinese Village Life in the Deng Era

Joe Zhang wrote in New York Times, “Nostalgia in China may sound strange to people whose image of the country’s recent history is colored by memories of Mao’s disastrous policies, which in the years following the Communist revolution in 1949 brought economic disaster, starvation and mass death. But my generation, which came of age after the Great Famine and at the end of the Cultural Revolution in the mid-1970s, missed the worst of the misery. And in typical Chinese fashion, my elders preferred not to talk about the bad days. [Source: Joe Zhang, New York Times, November 28, 2014. Zhang, a former manager at the People’s Bank of China, is the author of “Party Man, Company Man: Is China’s State Capitalism Doomed?”]

“My childhood came at a unique moment for China. We were still living traditional village lives, having left the horrors of Mao behind, but not yet in the thick of the capitalist frenzy. Families were strong, crime was unheard of and the landscape was pristine. We didn’t mind being poor — in my third and fourth years at primary school in the early-’70s, the whole school did not have textbooks — because we didn’t know what we were missing. We lived in peaceful, tight-knit communities.

“Beginning in the late 1970s, the communes were split up into family farms, prompting a surge of productivity and more freedom for rural residents. Peasants suddenly had the power to decide what crops to grow, how to grow them and how to sell their harvests and other products. Many farmers decided to leave the land to work in factories in the boomtowns along the southeast coast, bringing home money as well as fresh knowledge from the outside world. Many brought back much-needed skills to build their own businesses. This golden era was celebrated as the triumph of Deng Xiaoping’s economic liberation.”

Poverty Eradication Programs Under Xi Jinping

Reporting from Jieyuan village in Gansu Province, Keith Bradsher wrote in the New York Times: “When the Chinese government offered free cows to farmers in Jieyuan, villagers in the remote mountain community were skeptical. They worried officials would ask them to return the cattle later, along with any calves they managed to raise. But the farmers kept the cows, and the money they brought. Others received small flocks of sheep. Government workers also paved a road into the town, built new houses for the village’s poorest residents and repurposed an old school as a community center. Jia Huanwen, a 58-year-old farmer in the village in Gansu Province, was given a large cow three years ago that produced two healthy calves. He sold the cow in April for $2,900, as much as he earns in two years growing potatoes, wheat and corn on the terraced, yellow clay hillsides nearby. Now he buys vegetables regularly for his family’s table and medicine for an arthritic knee. “It was the best cow I’ve ever had, ” Mr. Jia said. [Source: Keith Bradsher, New York Times, December 31, 2020]

“The village of Jieyuan is one of many successes of President Xi Jinping’s ambitious pledge to eradicate abject rural poverty by the end of 2020. In just five years, China says it has lifted from extreme poverty over 50 million farmers left behind by breakneck economic growth in cities. But the village is also a testament to the considerable cost of the ruling Communist Party’s approach to poverty alleviation. That approach has relied on massive, possibly unsustainable subsidies to create jobs and build better housing.

““Beijing poured almost $700 billion in loans and grants into poverty alleviation over the past five years — about 1 percent of each year’s economic output. That excludes large donations by state-owned enterprises like State Grid, a power transmission giant, which put $120 billion into rural electricity upgrades and assigned more than 7,000 employees to work on poverty alleviation projects. Local cadres fanned out to identify impoverished households — defined as living on less than $1.70 a day. They handed out loans, grants and even farm animals to poor villagers. Officials visited residents weekly to check on their progress. “We’re pretty sure China’s eradication of absolute poverty in rural areas has been successful — given the resources mobilized, we are less sure it is sustainable or cost effective, ” said Martin Raiser, the World Bank country director for China.

Xi Jinping’s Rural Development Scheme

Michael Standaert of the BBC wrote: “The official pictures tell a delightful tale. China’s leader, Xi Jinping, is seen touring fish farms, rice paddies and vineyards in Ningxia, ambling through lily fields in Shanxi, and inspecting mushroom- and fungus-growing operations in Shaanxi. The carefully choreographed images aim to create a vision of his latest signature policy — rural revitalisation. Billions of dollars will be spent on revamping the countryside — increasing prosperity, improving its ecology, and integrating it with the development of China’s shining cities, which had largely left rural areas behind. [Source: Michael Standaert, BBC News, September 6, 2020]

“The initial phase, announced in late 2018, culminates in 2022. There are plans to modernise the agricultural sector by 2035, and fully transform the countryside by 2050 to coincide with Xi’s goal of propelling China to glorious global superpower status, just after the People’s Republic reaches its 100th birthday, in 2049. The aim is to make areas such as Shandong and Jilin province look more like the industrial farmbelts of the US. And there is a real need to transform the countryside, if China can get it right.

“Xi’s first move to address this was a poverty alleviation programme, launched in 2014, which identified the most impoverished households — those with an annual income under US$420 — and tasked local officials with doing everything they could to raise them above that threshold. When that goal was in sightChina’s premier, Li Keqiang, revealed in May 2020 at the annual National People’s Congress meetings that more than 600 million people in China still live on about US$140 per month — an annual income of just over US$1,640.

“The coronavirus pandemic increased pressure on the government to deliver on promises of rural economic transformation as the economy slowed sharply — particularly since many of the country’s 300 million or so rural migrant workers remained in their hometowns after the Covid-19 outbreak hit earlier this year.

Home Demolitions: Part of Xi Jinping’s Rural Development Scheme

Michael Standaert of the BBC wrote: ““In Shandong, thousands of villagers have had their homes demolished since March. Local officials understood that they had been given the green light to raze villages, and had drawn up plans to flatten as many 8,000 and move their residents into towns. But when a group of academics sounded the alarm it became clear that villagers were being left homeless, with some properties demolished before relocation and compensation agreements were established. “In mid-June, after several academics spoke out with detailed stories of evicted farmers, Li Hu, director of the Shandong Natural Resources Bureau, admitted during a press conference that the village merger campaign hadn’t been thoroughly thought over or properly promoted and carried out.[Source: Michael Standaert, BBC News, September 6, 2020]

“The campaign had “threatened the villagers’ right to live”, Liu Shouying, dean of the school of economics at Renmin University in Beijing stated in an interview with a state-run magazine run by Guangzhou Daily newspaper. There are no published figures on how many people have been evicted, moved or left homeless. “Rural revitalisation is intimately tied to new-style urbanisation under Xi Jinping, which causes a lot of confusion at the local level about how these policies should be implemented, ” says Kristen Looney, an assistant professor at Georgetown University in Washington DC, US, who focuses on rural development and governance and has done extensive fieldwork in China. “Shandong farmers are reporting that in some cases it takes two years to develop the new housing, and there’s no guarantee that you can get in the new complexes. That’s effectively making people homeless for two years.”

Over 92 Percent Rural People in China Have Access to Smartphones pr Cell Phones

A first-of-its-kind study by Shanghai University of Finance and Economics released in 2018, found that over 92.9 percent of the of the respondents from rural communities own mobile phones and 88.4 percent access to 4G wireless internet connection. It also found over 44 percent of the respondents have computers at home, up from less than 20 percent in 2013, and about 62.2 percent of rural households surveyed use home networking, a rise of more than 40 percent from 2013. [Source: Cao Chen in Shanghai, China Daily, July 2, 2018]

The China Daily reported: “The data illustrates that the use of mobile phones in the countryside far exceeds that of landline telephones, which was once considered the basic communication tool for rural residents. Only around 29.2 percent of families are still using landline telephones at home. The report also shows that 72 percent of the respondents pay between 10 and 100 yuan per month for their mobile phone bills. Most respondents pointed out that data fees account for a large part of their mobile phone charges.

“Due to the popularity of smartphones, mobile internet applications have become an essential part of farmers’ lives and work,” said Yue Jinfeng, head of the school of information management and engineering. “Strengthening the construction of rural internet infrastructure and its application can effectively reduce the gap between urban and rural regions and is of great significance to the digitization of rural communities.”

The findings of the report is based on a 10-year-long survey on agriculture, rural areas and farmers. It was conducted by 17,000 students, most of whom are undergraduates at Shanghai University of Finance and Economics, and over 80 experts at the university’s school of information management and engineering. Students and experts carried out field investigations on nearly 121,000 rural families in over 9,202 villages in 32 provinces in China, including Shanghai, Hong Kong, Liaoning and Sichuan province.

The data also reveals that almost 96 percent of the respondents use the internet for social networking on apps such as QQ and WeChat, while more than 50 percent of the respondents use it to find information on films, news, shopping and music. Despite the widespread use of the internet in rural areas, online expenditure from these communities is relatively low, said Huang. For example, online shopping accounts for less than 30 percent of the total daily consumption for nearly 50 percent of the respondents. Farmers were found to purchase mainly cheap clothing and food.

Researchers also investigated the popularity of inclusive finance - banking products and financial services catered to poor populations – and found that 81 percent of respondent have used such services. For rural residents, payment apps like Alipay and WeChat payment are the only financial apps they know of. About 33 percent of the respondents said that they viewed online financial services as insecure.

“The popularization of the internet in China’s rural areas is improving rapidly, but farmers are still not familiar enough with the application of the internet in life, with some still fearing that the technology will bring about negative consequences,” said Tian Bo, associate professor at the school of information management and engineering.

Research on Smartphone and Cell Phone Use in Rural Areas

Elisa Oreglia and Joseph 'Jofish' Kaye wrote in 2012: In rural Northern China, many people own a mobile phone without ever having purchased it: they received it as a gift from better off relatives, usually their migrant children. Rural-urban female migrants acquire devices and know-how when they move to cities, which they then bring back to their hoome villages. Gifting phones to relatives and imparting knowledge about their use might positively affect young women's standing and power status in communities. [Source: Elisa Oreglia and Joseph 'Jofish' Kaye, February 2012]

Peng Nie, Wanglin Ma & Alfonso Sousa-Poza wrote in the abstract of their paper: “The relationship between smartphone use and subjective well-being in rural China”: “Due to the popularization of the Internet in rural China, mobile Internet use has become an essential part of rural residents’ lives and work. This study surveys 493 rural Chinese households to assess the impact of smartphone use (SU) on their subjective well-being (SWB). The results reveal an association between SU and increases in both life satisfaction and happiness. The analysis also indicates that SU intensity is associated with lower levels of both SWB measures, especially when it exceeds 3 hours per day. Our multiple mediation results show that the positive SU–SWB linkage is partially mediated by both farm income and off-farm income. Mobile information and communication technologies can also provide more opportunities for rural entrepreneurship and innovation, in particular by motivating young farmers to actively engage in rural e-business ventures which can raise off-farm income. [Source: Peng Nie, Wanglin Ma & Alfonso Sousa-Poza,“The relationship between smartphone use and subjective well-being in rural China”, Electronic Commerce Research, January 14, 2020]

Wanglin Ma, R. Quentin Grafton & Alan Renwick wrote that research indicates that in rural areas “gender, farmers’ education, farm size, and off-farm work participation are the main drivers of smartphone use. Further, we find that smartphone use increases farm income, off-farm income and household income substantially and there is a statistically significant difference in the income effects between male and female users of smartphones. [Source: “ Smartphone use and income growth in rural China: empirical results and policy implications”, Wanglin Ma, R. Quentin Grafton & Alan Renwick Electronic Commerce Research volume 20, pages713–736, October 24, 2018] and Bringing E-Commerce to Rural China

Jiayang Fan wrote in The New Yorker: “, or Jingdong, as the company is known in Chinese, is the third-largest tech company in the world in terms of revenue, behind only Amazon and Google’s parent company, Alphabet, Inc. In the Western press, JD is often referred to as the Chinese Amazon.” Xia Canjun “oversees deliveries to more than two hundred villages around the Wuling Mountains, including his birthplace. But, in line with JD’s growth strategy, an equally important aspect of Xia’s job is to be a promoter for the company, getting the word out about its services. His income depends in part on the number of orders that come from his region. Across China, JD has made a policy of recruiting local representatives who can exploit the thick social ties of traditional communities to drum up business. Xia himself is not unaware of the irony: after venturing out to the great beyond, he discovered that the world was coming to Cenmang. [Source: Jiayang Fan, The New Yorker, July 23, 2018]

“A mother and her skinny teen-age daughter wandered in to fetch an order of the daughter’s favorite pan-fried instant noodles. The daughter liked to snack on them as she studied, and the local grocers didn’t offer the unusual flavors she preferred. Soon afterward, a shy fourteen-year-old came in to pick up a pair of Adidas sneakers. At ninety dollars, they were cheaper than in the stores. I asked Xia if he earned most of his salary from the wallets of teen-agers. “They are the ones who teach their parents how everything works, ” he said. “And the parents then teach the grandparents.”

Zhang Xiaoyan is a village JD promoter and deliveryman in Jiangsu Province. “The bulk of Zhang’s orders had been placed online with phones. Mostly people bought electronics, household goods, and snacks. But recently a big shipment of king crabs had arrived. I wondered whether the villagers had been skeptical about the freshness of the crabs, and Zhang explained that JD had given an explicit guarantee. “I opened up the box right then and there so everyone could see, ” he said, miming the motion of lifting the cardboard flaps. “If the crabs did not move, the buyers would get their money back.” To everyone’s delight, the crabs were even bigger and livelier than the ones at the fish market.

“After Zhang had finished making his deliveries, took us to the village’s lone convenience store. “Big Auntie!” he said, greeting the owner, a woman in her early fifties with bouffant hair. Nodding and smiling, she welcomed us in, and talked about the waning fortunes of her shop, which she’d run for decades. People were ordering online more, but that was only one of many causes. “All the young people have left, and the old people never buy much, ” she said. A government program to encourage resettlement in denser urban areas had offered people housing in Suqian, prompting a minor exodus. Her own children had left some time ago, and Big Auntie expressed uncertainty about the future. She gestured toward a construction site that I couldn’t quite make out in the distance, and said that developers had come in to assess the possibility of turning farmland into apple and peach orchards, “where city folks can come and pick fruits and have a picnic.” [Source: Jiayang Fan, The New Yorker, July 23, 2018]

Making Deliveries in Remote Rural China

Jiayang Fan wrote in The New Yorker: “After an hour or so, Xia and I set out to make deliveries to nearby townships and villages, driving along curving, mountainous dirt tracks marked with potholes. Rice paddies and soybean fields glided by, and construction sites with wobbly-looking bamboo sticks for scaffolding. We got stuck behind a truckload of squealing pigs whose rickety pen threatened to spill them onto our windshield. An elderly couple walked by, pulling a cart piled with timber, on which a small child was precariously perched. At regular intervals along the way, billboards exhorted people to “overthrow poverty!” and told those who “got rich first” to “help those who will later become rich.” The tone of old Communist maxims was effortlessly adapting itself to a vision of social change powered by market capitalism.

“Frequently, we would lurch to a stop on the shoulder of the road so that Xia could make a call or answer one from a customer. JD requires deliverymen to phone ahead and check that a recipient is at home. There’s no point in scheduling a set delivery time, he explained: “Compared with cities, there isn’t as much a sense of structure.” People phoned to ask him to drop a package off at the local market or post office or medical clinic.

“At one point, he stopped to ask directions from an acquaintance who was squatting outside her home in plastic slippers, washing cabbage leaves with a hose. She pointed to a narrow path that turned out to snake on for two more miles of hairpin turns, revealing vistas of farmland dotted with thatch-roofed houses, and gray-green mountains in the distance. Old women bent over large trays of dried chili peppers. Children played on the open road. “Wa! You actually came all the way out here, ” a woman in her mid-twenties, balancing a toddler on her hip, said when we eventually arrived. She opened the package and gently stroked the purchase that had occasioned our odyssey: a five-dollar pink baby towel. Over the years, Xia has found that baby goods — clothes, formula, diapers — make up a considerable proportion of his deliveries. “I ordered my son’s diapers on JD, too, ” he told me. “Everyone wants the best for their kids. For a long time, there wasn’t any choice. Now there is.” After several more deliveries — a pair of pants, a cell-phone case, bedsheets — we headed back to Xinhuang.

Drone Delivery in Rural China

Jiayang Fan wrote in The New Yorker: “On a brisk autumn morning a few days before my visit to JD’s headquarters, I stood in the courtyard of a former glassworks in Zhangwei, a village in Jiangsu Province, expectantly waiting for diapers, shampoo, and other sundries to fall from the sky. A drone, which was ferrying the goods, was due to arrive at any minute. A few villagers — mostly grannies and toddlers — milled about, careful not to stray too close to a circular green-felt landing pad. Beyond the sloping red-tile roofs of the surrounding houses, I could see silk squashes drooping from vines slung between utility poles. [Source: Jiayang Fan, The New Yorker, July 23, 2018]

I was waiting with Li Dapeng, the principal scientist at JD-X, an in-house research lab that oversees JD’s drone development. JD uses seven types of drones, some for long-distance deliveries and others to carry heavier packages over short distances. The one we were expecting carries around thirty pounds up to a dozen miles from its base, at a top speed of forty-five miles an hour. Zhangwei is on the outskirts of Liu Qiangdong’s native city, Suqian, which is also a hub of JD activity. Zhangwei was one of the first villages to be serviced by drone, starting in early 2017, and now gets an average of four deliveries a day.

“Li pointed to a whirring speck in the sky. As it drew closer, the first thing I could make out was a red box under the belly of the drone. A minute later, I saw three spinning propellers, which seemed improbably small for the size of their load, like the wings of a bumblebee. The children pointed their fingers upward, faces lifted, and cheered for the “toy plane.” But no one else seemed terribly excited. A young man with gelled hair, who arrived as the drone was descending, said that, for a few weeks, these landings had drawn big crowds, but that people soon had got used to them: “Things change so fast around here, there’s no time to be surprised about anything.”

The young man, who introduced himself as Zhang Xiaoyan, turned out to be the village JD promoter and deliveryman. As he stood near the drone, which hovered a few inches from the ground, it automatically released its cargo box and zipped off into the sky. Zhang cut open the box and began organizing the seven packages that were inside according to their destinations.

Li and I went with him as he made his rounds, setting off past an abandoned outhouse and a tumbledown barn with hay bursting through its doors. Like Xia, Zhang had been born in the region he now served and had graduated from a local technical college, before heading for a larger city — in his case, Suzhou, where he did grunt work in factories and restaurants. And, like Xia, he’d jumped at the chance to return home with a stable JD job. As a local, he had an intimate knowledge of Zhangwei’s social demographics. To him, it didn’t seem strange that people should still be digging wells for water even as they set up Wi-Fi in their homes. Only the very richest inhabitants, perhaps fifty people, owned cars. Almost everyone had a TV, but no more than half the villagers had a refrigerator, because people mostly ate vegetables that they grew themselves and chickens that they kept running around in their yards until the moment they were needed for the pot. A tiny minority had computers. Everyone had a cell phone.

Drone Center for Deliveries in Rural China

Jiayang Fan wrote in The New Yorker: “After leaving the store, Li and I got in a car and headed for the drone control center in Suqian. On the way, our driver pointed to a pair of cylindrical glass buildings, with clusters of young people hurrying in and out. “JD’s main call center, ” Li said, and told me that it handled trouble-shooting calls for the entire country. Liu built it in 2009, providing jobs for more than nine thousand people in his home town. Throughout Suqian, Liu is spoken of in tones that suggest a mythic hero or a minor deity. If it weren’t for Old Liu, people say, who would have heard of us in this drab, no-name city? [Source: Jiayang Fan, The New Yorker, July 23, 2018]

:At the drone center, Li led me to a control room, where a screen covering an entire wall showed the routes of all the drones and pinpointed their current locations with blinking lights. Next door was a glass-enclosed space that looked like a gaming café — rows of computers with dozens of young men squinting intently at the screens. It turned out to be a training center for drone pilots. The screens displayed animations of quadcopters that looked vaguely drunk as they wove through the sky toward landing pads.

“JD’s drone classes last three months, and each student pays ten thousand yuan (around two thousand dollars) — “a small price, ” an instructor in the room made sure to inform me, considering how much they stood to earn. I asked him if they were guaranteed a job, and he shook his head and said, rather grandly, “We keep only the very best students.” But there was no shortage of other opportunities for the rest. In China, drones are rapidly invading just about every industry where they can plausibly be deployed. They are used to spray crops, to monitor pollution levels and disaster zones, to create fireworks displays and produce photojournalism, and even to catch schoolkids cheating on the standardized tests that, in the Chinese education system, assume life-or-death significance.

“I chatted with some of the students, few of whom were native to Suqian. One, from Shanxi Province, had recently served in the Army; another had been selling life insurance; and another, from Inner Mongolia, had worked in interior design. Not many had been to college, and some hadn’t even graduated from high school, but the instructor said that you didn’t need any technical or scientific knowledge to fly a drone, just as you didn’t need to know about fabric or design to be a clerk in a clothing store. Like Xia’s deliverymen, the trainees evinced confidence about the opportunities that technology would confer on relatively unskilled workers like themselves. Drones, one declared, provided a job that “pointed toward the future.”

“A man let me try flying the virtual drone on his terminal. I couldn’t keep it in the air for more than a few seconds before it nose-dived to the ground. “You’re pressing too hard on the gas, ” someone said in exasperation, after my third suicidal plunge. This is harder than driving a car, ” I said, attempting to deflect embarrassment with humor. But no one laughed, and it emerged that none of these drone-pilot trainees had ever been behind the wheel of a car.”

Image Sources:

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, National Geographic, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, Lonely Planet Guides, Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.

Last updated October 2021

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