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China's Rural Revolution

E-commerce Revives Remote Villages


E-commerce Revives Remote Villages


The rural community of Suichang has created an economic miracle through online shopping. Farmers, country stores and open fields have become the future of China's mobile economy.



E-commerce Revives Remote Villages

By Elaine Huang
From CommonWealth Magazine (vol. 548 )

Thirty-seven year old Pan Dongming, chair of the Suichang County Online Store Association, is a very busy man.

Although it is Sunday, Pan Dongming has gotten up early to take his deputy Pan Junyao to the local service point of S.F. Express, a leading Chinese delivery services company, to discuss a promotional micro video on locally raised chickens they are going to shoot that afternoon. Before noon, they already rush back to their office to brief a delegation from Beijing on their business model for Suichang farm products.

At least 200 groups have traveled to Suichang during the past twelve month specifically to listen to Pan Dongming's business presentations.

One day ago, Pan Dongming took an arduous four-hour drive to the expansive headquarters campus of China's Internet giant Alibaba in the provincial capital Hangzhou to deliver a speech on agricultural e-commerce.

Pan Dongming is unable to slow down, because he feels that right now no one could do the job in his place. He has a strong sense of mission and views himself as the pioneer of economic transformation in Suichang.

The once bleak and desolate county is gradually morphing into a thriving "e-commerce county."

Suichang is a so-called fourth-tier county under the jurisdiction of Lishui City in Zhejiang Province.

The comparatively small county is famous for its bamboo forests and natural scenery such as the Jiulong Mountain Nature Reserve and White Horse Mountain Forest Park. With an area of more than 2,500 square kilometers, Suichang is nine times bigger than Taipei City, but has a population of some 230,000 people, less than one tenth of Taipei's.

Remote County Transforms into E-Commerce Hub

Nationwide, China has around 2,700 counties similar to Suichang.

Pan Dongming is a dyed-in-the-wool Suichang native.

Suichang, where he was born and grew up, has few factories and smokestacks, but instead boasts forest-covered mountains, lush terraced rice fields and tea plantations. Air pollution and severe smog, the scourge of China's metropolitan cities, is unheard of in this pristine setting. Nevertheless, young people have left in droves for towns and cities in search of jobs. The elderly, who stayed behind, carve out a living by tending the fields and raising a few water buffalo.

Pan's parents were farmers all their lives, working hard to bring up their son and give him a shot at a better life. He lived up to their expectations, passing the entrance exam for Zhejiang University. Upon graduation, the farmer's son worked as a business management consultant for a consulting firm in Shanghai. Originally, he planned to settle down there.

However, three years ago, Pan Dongming suddenly changed his mind when he realized that his remote native town actually had a lot to offer.

"In Shanghai I saw how severe the food safety problem was. I began to think about the bamboo shoots and tea leaves from Suichang, the free-range chickens we raised at home, the chicken soup my mother used to make for me at night," Pan recalls. His nostalgia for the tastes of home not only lured Pan back to Suichang, but also led him to discover that the long-spurned local farm products were actually treasures that could put Suichang on the e-commerce map.

"My parents didn't want me to come back. But to their surprise, I've returned, and I got into agriculture, the work they least wanted me to take up," Pan Dongming says with a simple smile.

Online Stores Increase Visibility of Farming Villages

That was the only time that Pan Dongming openly rebelled against his parent's wishes, because he saw the huge business opportunities that e-commerce offered for the remote countryside. Since the launch of online mall Taobao, online shopping has skyrocketed in China.

As China's leading e-commerce provider, Taobao boasts traffic of more than 100 million users. Pan Dongming thought if Suichang products were sold via Taobao, then the farmers would instantly have access to a nationwide community of online shoppers.

He reckoned that through the Taobao platform the farmers of Suichang would be able to find new markets for their products, which would create jobs and help the backward county stage an economic turnaround.

The tall and slender Pan Dongming walks through the rape fields next to an office building. The rented four-story building houses the Suichang County Online Store Association and the Sui Wang E-Commerce Company, both launched by Pan. Here is the base for his e-commerce dream. Currently, Pan Dongming employs 160 people. All are Suichang natives younger than he is.

Thirty-year-old Pan Junyao, for instance, was born in nearby Lishui, but eventually married a Suichang girl. Originally, he worked as a chef at a Hangzhou hotel, yet decided to return to the countryside a few years ago to participate in Suichang's transformation.

Energetic Pan Junyao, who serves as the association's vice chairman, helps Pan Dongming train locals in basic e-commerce knowledge and instructs them how to open a store on Taobao. With his strong, loud voice, he is the ideal man for the job. In an alleyway near the office, a group of local residents has shown up for their e-commerce course. A dozen or so of them have already opened a Taobao store.

Pan Dongming tours all farm cooperatives in the Suichang area with his employees in tow. The cooperatives are his suppliers, providing him with farm products that are certified as produced in Suichang.

Pan Dongming's business model works as follows: the villagers take orders from online shoppers across China via their Taobao stores. Then they hand the orders to the farm cooperatives that fill them and ship the goods directly to customers' doorsteps through local logistics companies.

Along the main street outside the association's office, four local home delivery businesses have set up shop. Three years ago, there were none. Now they are busy shipping Suichang farm products to every corner of China on a daily basis.

Among online shoppers, the most popular items from Suichang are bamboo charcoal, edibe bamboo shoots, free-range chickens and tealeaves. Suichang's famous moso bamboo shoots even featured prominently in the first episode of A Bite of China, a popular Chinese documentary television series on the history of Chinese cooking and food. Over the past three years, Pan's association has trained more than 1,300 Taobao vendors and some 200 local suppliers of farm products.

Last year, sales of Suichang farm products totaled NT$635 million. Pan's association serves as a platform that links production, marketing and distribution in an e-commerce environment. Thanks to the rise of local e-commerce, more than 500 jobs were created over the past three years. The Suichang model will expand Taobao's sphere of influence even to the remotest villages in China.

A Network of Village Service Centers

Huang Wuqing, the association's outlet operations representative, drives his car to the mountainous outskirts of Suichang. Some 20 minutes later, he arrives in the village of Dajue, a major producer of moso bamboo shoots.

Pan Dongming is presently setting up a vast network of e-commerce service centers in local villages to enable people in remote areas to buy goods from across the country on Taobao mall.

Huang Wuqing stops his car in front of the grocery store of Huang Meiying, a 51-year-old local woman.

Huang's store functions as an "online e-commerce service center" for the entire village. A certificate of honor on the wall of the cluttered shop attests to the shop owner's "e-commerce skills."

Her HP desktop computer is the only computer in the village.

Initially, Huang Meiying did not know how to input Chinese characters, but after Huang Wuqing trained her for two full days, she got the hang of it. Now she confidently types away on the keyboard and deftly uses her mouse, helping the villagers to place orders and make payments on Taobao. She also helps them sell their products such as eggs and soybeans online.

"Suichang has more than 150 service centers like this one," Huang Wuqing notes proudly. He spends five days a week helping Pan Dongming tour the villages. Huang Wuqing only attended a vocational college, but his current job gives him a strong sense of achievement. He does not intend to move away to work in a bigger city or industrial zone.

Huang Wuqing has his work cut out for him, because Pan Dongming plans to expand his network toward even bigger Lishui City. The goal is 800 to 1,000 service centers.

"During the Lunar New Year holiday we hired a lot of young people. They all say they don't want to work in an industrial zone. Many second-generation farmers also come to us on their own initiative to become our suppliers," says Pan Dongming.

Over the past three years, Pan has seen small, incremental steps bring about big change in Suichang. This has only boosted his enthusiasm to keep riding the wave of Internet growth and e-commerce with his young coworkers to transform his hometown.

Translated from the Chinese by Susanne Ganz