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A visit to Xi Jinping's model village in rural China

JUANA SUMMERS, HOST:

Now a story of the changing fortunes of one village in China. Almost 20 years ago, a mid-ranking Chinese official by the name of Xi Jinping visited a village a couple of hours west of Shanghai. The locals were closing down mines, upgrading the economy, cleaning the environment. Xi was impressed, and when he went back 15 years later, this time as China's president, he declared it a model village. A sputtering economy is now pushing more people into gig work post-COVID, so a pair of entrepreneurs have teamed up with the local government to try to make that same village a model once again. NPR's John Ruwitch paid them a visit.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: (Speaking Mandarin).

JOHN RUWITCH, BYLINE: The village of Yucun's first transformation was from being a polluted backwater to a national class 4A scenic spot visited by daily tours.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: (Speaking Mandarin).

RUWITCH: China's rapid development had often come at the expense of the environment, and Yucun showed that that didn't always have to be the case. This time around, the stakes are just as high.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: (Non-English language spoken).

RUWITCH: A short bike ride from the center of town is DN Yucun, a hub for digital nomads, or people who essentially can work online from anywhere. It's run by two men, Xu Song and Ah-De.

XU SONG: (Speaking Mandarin).

RUWITCH: Xu Song says the digital nomad hub here is fundamentally like infrastructure.

XU: (Speaking Mandarin).

RUWITCH: "If you want to get rich," he says, citing an old saying, "you have to build roads first." And, yes, there is a cost in it for local government.

XU: (Through interpreter) But because of roads, the economies of the villages near them can develop.

RUWITCH: The digital nomad hub can be a similar catalyst. This is a modern living and co-working space that can accommodate about 150 people. It's got fast internet, a gym, decent coffee, and it's in a building that already existed but nobody used. There are lots of those buildings around China from past development schemes, Xu says.

XU: (Through interpreter) As the ecosystem expands and spreads, those assets that nobody wanted become something that people want because they'll think, I could open a coffee shop here. I could open a small restaurant. I could open a youth hostel.

RUWITCH: That's because now there are more people around, people like 22-year-old Yang Xiaoshui.

YANG XIAOSHUI: (Speaking Mandarin).

RUWITCH: Yang is taking a gap year between her third and fourth years of college. She's trying to get a small product design company off the ground.

YANG: (Speaking Mandarin).

RUWITCH: And she says she has the ideal work-life balance here. She likes the freedom of doing her own thing and the fact that she's near nature. The DN Yucun model seems to jibe with Xi Jinping's plans, too. Two years ago, Xi declared victory over poverty in China. Now he's doubling down on the idea of revitalizing the countryside. Experts say in part, that means diversifying the economy and making it more digital. Kristen Looney is a China hand at Georgetown University. She says it serves another purpose, too.

KRISTEN LOONEY: Oftentimes, these policies that target the countryside are not so much about the countryside, but they are about the externalities of growth in the cities.

RUWITCH: Chinese cities are overcrowded. Youth unemployment was last reported at over 20%. And homes in urban areas are too pricy for many to afford. Yet over the past several decades, that's where opportunity and fortune have been found.

LOONEY: And there is this huge hollowing out of villages. And so if you can't convince people to stay, maybe you can convince young people who've never been in the countryside - right? - to go.

RUWITCH: Officials appear intrigued. Xu Song says the authorities are paying for DN Yucun's land and utilities, and he's had several queries from other villages about the model. The minister of Human Resources and Social Security even visited from Beijing a few months ago.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: (Speaking Mandarin).

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #4: (Speaking Mandarin).

RUWITCH: As the afternoon winds down, Ah-De gets a pickup game of ultimate Frisbee going. It's part of DN Yucun's many efforts to build community and make digital nomad life fun.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #5: (Laughter).

XU: (Through interpreter) At 4 p.m., over in that building, there's another activity. They've invited a sports expert to talk about staying hydrated during exercise.

RUWITCH: It's not every day you see a Frisbee game in rural China, but that's part of the point. Xu Song says he imagines a different future for the countryside.

XU: (Speaking Mandarin).

RUWITCH: "It's a place," he says, "where you'll be able to chat about quantum physics or Kafka, listen to chamber music, have a glass of red wine." And it's almost possible to envision that happening here at DN Yucun. It's just unclear how this test case can scale up. John Ruwitch, NPR News, Yucun, China.

(SOUNDBITE OF HI TEK'S "ALL I NEED IS YOU") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

John Ruwitch is a correspondent with NPR's international desk. He covers Chinese affairs.
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