Chasing a different China Dream, young digital nomads head for the hills

By Reuters   November 23, 2023 | 06:53 pm PT
Chasing a different China Dream, young digital nomads head for the hills
People work at a co-working hub for digital nomads in Dali, Yunnan province, China Nov. 10, 2023. Photo by Reuters/Florence Lo
In this mountain town in China's southwest, drifters and tarot card readers rub shoulders with tech entrepreneurs and artists. Many are former city-dwellers in search of an elusive prize in authoritarian China: Space for open discussion and exchange of ideas.

In one co-working space, a group of young adults asked questions about the effect of Trump-era populism on U.S. media during a discussion led by a Chinese journalist about the American position on the Israel-Gaza conflict. In a nearby cafe, others discussed art, sexual harassment and the listlessness of China's youth.

The economy stutters, exacerbating a youth unemployment crisis, Dali in Yunnan province has become a haven for those seeking to escape the pressure.

They are drawn by the cheap rents, mild climate, stunning scenery and a history of relative tolerance, which were popularised by a television drama this year about a digital nomad.

Dali's Old Town district, administratively part of a city of 650,000, has attracted culture workers since the late 1990s, said Minhua Ling, an expert on Chinese migration at the Geneva Graduate Institute, adding that the normalization of remote work also increased its appeal.

In November, searches for "Dali" on WeChat were up 7% from a year ago, having surged some 290% on one day in late July, when many Chinese were booking summer trips.

'Ideal kingdom'

With youth unemployment at a record high this summer - when China stopped releasing the statistic - and a stagnant rural population due to low fertility rates and urban migration, Beijing has tried to enlist young people in "rural revitalization".

Xi has urged graduates to "return to their hometowns" and "actively seek hardships", alluding to his experience during the Cultural Revolution.

Recruitment startup founder Chen Zhengyun, 37, said living in Dali freed him from societal pressure to get married early,as state calls for matrimony grow louder amid China's demographic crisis.

"There are some personal topics that you can't bring up elsewhere that you can talk about here," said Chen, adding that the concentration of like-minded young people, social events and tolerance for diverse lifestyles allowed him to explore open relationships.

The local government has sought to attract young tech talent and in September asked digital nomads for input on policies, two community organizers told Reuters.

go to top