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China’s digital nomads are trading megacities for backpacker havens

Tired of punishing 72-hour weeks, tech-savvy Chinese are choosing to work remotely in regional cities.

After a hard day’s work, programmer Richard Hao turns off his laptop in a cafe overlooking the picturesque Dali Lake and drinks in the view. Like a growing number of digital nomads in China, he turned his back on big city life and moved to the tourist hub in Yunnan province, famous for its snow-capped mountains, ancient temples and pagodas.

“I have a regular job with relatively regular hours,” said Hao, who works for a technology company in Shenzhen, a city of more than 17 million people, about 1,800 miles to the southeast. “It’s just that I don’t have to go to an office and I have some flexibility to do my own thing.”

China is catching up with the global trend of tech-savvy workers choosing cheaper and nicer locations to settle – a lifestyle that has gained momentum since the Covid-19 pandemic prompted a rethink of work-life balance.

However, the background of digital nomadism in China is unique. It offers a middle ground between two fairly extreme work attitudes: the ‘996’ culture that prevails in some tech companies of toiling from 9am to 9pm, 6 days a week, and the protest culture of doing as little work as possible, known as ‘tang’. ping” or lie flat.

Proponents such as Daniel Ng, who runs a co-working space in Dali, believe a happy medium could help reduce the youth unemployment rate, which hovers around 20% as the economy slows. An influx of creative, enterprising people, usually including live streamers, vloggers, online teachers and tech support workers, could also help local authorities revive cities depleted of tourists by the pandemic.

But the future looks far from certain. As major tech companies such as Alibaba Group Holding Ltd. and Tencent Holdings Ltd. Laying off thousands of employees allows companies to be more choosy about who they want to keep and what benefits they offer. And then there are government policies, such as the household registration system, which have limited mobility for some migrant workers.

Digital nomadism will take on a “greater chunk of the future of work,” said Rachael Woldoff, a sociology professor at West Virginia University and co-author of “Digital Nomads: In Search of Freedom, Community and Meaningful Work in the New Economy .”

“What is less clear to us is whether the Chinese work culture is ready to adapt to this and how many Chinese workers would like to participate in it,” she said.

Dali, a city of just over half a million inhabitants, has long been known as a backpacker’s paradise, with a touristy Old Town where travelers can find cheap accommodation, Western-style bars and Southeast Asian cuisine. The area is known for its natural beauty, with Erhai Lake to the east and the Cangshan Mountains to the west.

About a 10-minute walk from Old Town is Dali Hub, a three-storey white stucco building on a quiet street that literally translates as ‘reclusive immortals’. Like many co-working spaces, it has a cafe, desks and space for events. The building, which has a roof terrace with mountain views, is home to nomads and serves as a haven for like-minded people who want to work on their own terms.

“People are really sick of the corporate culture in China like 996,” said co-founder Ng, who is originally from southeastern Fujian province and has lived in Malaysia for several years.

“Because of Covid everyone is struggling, stuck in the cities” and people need the freedom to choose where they work and live, Ng said. “When you’re working in a cube, you don’t really have that kind of creativity.”

While remote working has grown rapidly in countries like the US, and given that countries like Argentina offer special visas to attract remote workers, it remains relatively unconventional in the world’s second largest economy.

Gartner Inc. predicts that 31% of the global workforce will be working remotely this year, partially or completely away from their employer. It says the US will lead at 53%, while 28% of workers in China will be remote.

There are several obstacles to being a digital nomad in China. Many workers still prefer the security of a government job, especially in times of economic hardship. With an ongoing crackdown on private enterprises and the country’s major tech companies, recent graduates are increasingly seeking jobs in the state sector, despite lower wages.

There are also practical considerations. While China’s household registration system, known as hukou, doesn’t curtail the mobility of nomads as much as it does for migrant workers, their ambulant status and self-employment can make it difficult to access the social security system that includes health insurance and pensions.

Still, co-working ventures are emerging in regional areas, partly due to improved internet access. According to the China Internet Network Information Center, a government-backed industry research agency, about 28% of Chinese Internet users lived in rural areas in June.

In Anji, a city in eastern China’s Zhejiang province made famous for the bamboo forests featured in Ang Lee’s film “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon,” a government-backed hub offers co-working spaces and creative labs for nomads willing to live in harmony with the local tea growers.

Jingdezhen, a city in China’s southeastern Jiangxi province known for its porcelain production, is also home to a digital nomad hub. The local government there has collaborated with the Institute of Culture and Creativity of Tsinghua University to develop village economies based on tourism. It is part of a wider effort to make rural development a growth engine for the economy, closing the gap between urban and rural areas and increasing self-reliance.

According to Olga Hannonen, a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Eastern Finland who studies the trend, the culture of remote work benefits “location-independent professionals” as well as businesses, which can save on office rent and the higher salaries that come with it. are demanded by workers in large cities. .

It is particularly suitable for virtual influencers and live streamers, she said. China’s livestreaming e-commerce market grew to 1.2 trillion yuan ($170 billion) in 2020, with influencers ranging from lipsticks to smartphones in a Gen-Z version of the Home Shopping Network.

Back in Dali, the sense of community among the nomads is very important. A co-working company called DAO Space, which opened in August in an old cloth factory, is charging customers just 480 yuan a month.

“Ideally, we hope to build a self-sufficient economy here,” said a former English teacher who identified himself as Glitch Boy, as he is known in the local digital nomad group. The space provides “an arena for people to exchange their resources and skills so we can grow our small community.”

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