In China's once poverty-stricken villages, former peasants manufacture a single product for one retailer

Alibaba subsidiary Taobao has given rise to "Taobao Villages" -- 18 villages that were once among China's poorest places, where former peasant farmers have attained prosperity by working in factories that produce a single class of goods (for example, Daiji township, a remote town in Shandong where most working age people have moved away, is now a high-speed-fiber linked booming factory town dedicated to "acting and dance costumes").

In Dinglou village 280 of the 306 households make goods for Taobao. Taobao villages are a major piece of China's poverty-alleviation schemes, and Taobao villages are dotted with official signs bearing messages like "Through Taobao, you can escape bitter days. E-commerce runs toward the road of happiness."

Ding Peiling’s small, hangar-like factory floor sits on the edge of his plot of land in Dinglou village, facing the recently paved road that heads into town. In one room, two middle-aged women from surrounding villages are ironing World War II-era army nurse costumes for yet another film about that war, which is remembered in China as a heroic struggle against Japanese militarism. The women had previously farmed nearby plots of land; now, they have found better wages out of the fields and much closer to home.

Ding, unlike nearly every other adult in the village, never left. A slim man of 60 with big glasses and dark, sun-worn skin, he graduated high school and became a teacher. He originally taught math and language arts, but the pay was low. It was only in the mid-1980s, after 13 years of teaching, that he found another opportunity. An artist in a nearby village painted background canvases for photo shoots, but was too busy painting to sell them. Ding and his cousin became door-to-door salesmen for photo backdrops. The market eventually shifted to photo costumes and then to general performance costumes, which offered a larger consumer base. Around 2013, only Ding and a handful of other households were engaged in any business besides subsistence farming.

Su, as the new township party secretary at the time, saw a development opportunity. The roads were too broken to support delivery trucks, so Su took matters into his own hands, residents say: He and his fellow township government officials went out and fixed the roads themselves. They laid fiber-optic cables—they have “internet faster than in Shanghai,” he claims—and he wrote an open letter encouraging college graduates and migrants who had moved to cities to come back to the countryside.

Once poverty-stricken, China’s “Taobao villages” have found a lifeline making trinkets for the internet [Josh Freedman/Quartz]

(Image: Josh Freedman)

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