We don’t often see the words “digital nomad” and “China” together, largely due to the difficulty of getting visas to travel there, something which has only become harder since the pandemic. Nevertheless, you will see some travelers sharing their views on why Shanghai and Hong Kong make the perfect vibrant Chinese destinations for digital nomads.
But this is not the most interesting digital nomad news coming out of China. More interesting are the new digital nomad settlements, mostly for Chinese remote workers, that are popping up in the countryside.
For generations, populations in the rural areas of China have been declining as young people head to the big cities for more opportunities. The Chinese government has tried to encourage young people to take the skills that they have learned in the cities and return to the countryside and “seek challenge” as a form of personal growth and a way of building the country. But until recently, young people have had little interest in this.
But that seems to be changing.
New Digital Nomad Trends in China
A recent survey of young people born after the year 2000 showed that 76% were interested in the digital nomad lifestyle. This is largely for the same reasons that young people are interested in remote working in Western countries. Most cite what is called 996 in China, which means working 9 am to 9 pm six days a week. Young people agree that this kind of heavy workload is not sustainable and want more for their lives.
In addition to this, there is the attraction of being able to have a big city job without having to live in the city. One pioneering Chinese digital nomad explained how she traded in her USD 700-a-week Beijing apartment to live in the countryside for just USD 200 per week.
Many also cite the social pressure that comes with living in Chinese cities. They are expected to find good jobs, get married, and start having children. Many young people are looking for a way out of the cookie-cutter life.
In the cities, a trend is emerging called “let it rot” (not dissimilar from “quiet quitting” in the United Dtates). It basically means doing the bare minimum to survive rather than subscribing to the Chinese philosophy of hard work and productivity.
But a healthier approach seems to be to turn to digital nomadism. This means heading out of the city to more affordable rural destinations and often taking on an array of freelance and part-time jobs online rather than committing to a 70-hour work week.
This kind of fully remote work is now becoming increasingly possible in China in a group of specific industries, in particular software development, creative writing, marketing, design and creation, consulting, and tutoring.
The government seems to support this unconventional move, so far, since it aligns with their policy of getting young people to return to the countryside.
New Digital Nomad Villages
In response to growing demand, uniquely Chinese digital nomads have been popping up. They are unique because they are not just about coworking and coliving, but also actively embracing a different lifestyle that involves less familial and state duty and more freedom of speech and thought.
Dali Old Town, Yunan Province
Dali is a city in Yunan Province, and the Old Town has been attracting cultural professionals since the 1990s, drawn by the deep history and tourism appeal of the city. It is known for its snow-capped mountains, ancient temples, and pagodas. Now digital nomads are flocking to the “ideal kingdom” too thanks to a new coworking space called Dali Hub.
It is set up as a village for like-minded young entrepreneurs and is attracting a range of people from technology developers to online Tarot readers. They can take advantage of the cheap lodging aimed at backpackers, the Western-style bars, and popular restaurants.
Dali Huub itself is a three-story building with coworking spaces, event facilities, a café, and a rooftop with mountain views. Most importantly it offers a fast internet connection for workers. Rural internet has never been particularly good in China, so collective investment in connectivity is an attractive prospect.
Anji, Zhejiang Province
Another popular coworking space is the DNA Anji Digital Nomad Commune in Hengshan Village. It was founded in 2021 with the slogan “let the interesting people in the world unite”. It is located in an abandoned bamboo and wood processing factory that has been transformed into a coworking and coliving space with extensive facilities, including a gym and entertainment spaces. It even has a community coordinator to organize social events.
The same group has now launched a second location called DN Yucan just 37 kilometers away in Tianhuangping Town. The philosophy of both is again not just working remotely, but taking yourself out of an environment of expectation and obligation and creating the life that you want.
Jingdezhen, Jiangxi Province
Tsinghua University’s Institute for Culture and Creativity and the local government in Jingdezhen have also worked together to attract digital nomads and young entrepreneurs, creating a hub for both.
Here coworking spaces have not just popped up for remote workers, but also for porcelain makers who lost their big company jobs due to recent economic changes. There are now a variety of shared studios where independent potter makers can work.
Decline in Coworking Spaces in Big Cities
This growth of digital nomad hubs in rural areas has been matched by a decline in coworking spaces in the big cities.
The coworking business became big in China in 2017 and 2018, growing by more than 150% in the space of two years. But this was followed by a crash starting in 2019 that hasn’t stopped. In 2022, the market was a fraction of what it was in 2017.
Rather than boosting remote work at coworking facilities, this seems to have declined due to tight pandemic controls, and the industry just hasn’t recovered. But it is difficult to predict what will happen in the coming years.
Challenges for Chinese Digital Nomads
There are still many obstacles to the rise of the digital nomad movement in China. Private enterprise and freelance working are not as flexible in China, as the system for taxes and benefits is complex. Many people still prefer the security of government jobs, but these also come with a lack of flexibility.
There is also the complexity of the Chinese household registration system, known as the hukou. For generations, this has made it difficult for migrant workers to access social welfare, healthcare, and pensions. While it is not as prejudiced against city dwellers moving to the countryside, the system does need to catch up with this evolving lifestyle.
But these feel like challenges to overcome rather than immovable obstacles. A thriving digital nomad community will surely emerge in China and will have much to teach the rest of the world.