Covid-19 has transformed China’s remote work culture, but who can afford this lifestyle and how does it impact local communities?
As the camera pans over lush green rice paddies, settling on a range of mountains decked with rays of sunlight piercing a sky of fluffy white clouds, 30-year-old Fu Yeye provides a whimsical voice-over: “With 2,000 yuan in Dali, you can buy an idyllic life that you couldn’t get for even 10,000-plus in Beijing.” The scene, posted on Fu’s account on popular youth lifestyle app Xiaohongshu (RED), switches to views over Dali’s Erhai Lake at sunset, and Fu’s rented courtyard where she lives with her boyfriend and dog, “Bunny.”
It’s a bucolic existence, Fu’s voice-over explains, away from the pollution, traffic, and crowds of China’s biggest cities. “People ask why digital nomads are so happy; it’s because we live next to green fields and pristine water every day, and spend on average 3,000 to 6,000 a month. I’m emotionally and spiritually wealthy, and my wallet is full too.”
The stunning surroundings of Dali, Yunnan province, have long made it a tourism hot spot, but now it’s also increasingly a magnet for remote workers like Fu keen to escape fast-paced, high-pressure white-collar life in China’s biggest cities. By combining remote working with travel, living in cheap locations, and working via the internet, these “digital nomads” are ditching their office jobs in increasing numbers. Covid-19 further fueled the trend, with around 200 million people forced into remote working during the pandemic’s peak and some desperate to leave crowded urban areas with higher risk of large outbreaks.
But despite Fu’s utopian social media content, the digital nomad life is far more complex than influencers and entrepreneurs would have you believe. In the US, most digital nomads quit the lifestyle within three years, according to a 2020 report by MBO Partners. In China, pulling up roots and living on the go is a risk only some can afford—mainly affluent, educated, unmarried (or at least childless) urbanites. Keeping income flowing when you work remotely is also a challenge, and China’s location-based social security schemes leave this floating population uninsured in their temporary homes.
What’s more, it’s unclear what benefits digital nomads bring to the communities they inhabit: They don’t stay permanently, they often work and generate value for companies based elsewhere, and their presence may drive up the local cost of living.
Who can be a nomad?
The term “digital nomad” has existed since 1997. Coined by Tsukio Makimoto, former CEO of Hitachi, it refers to those who work remotely, frequently move their place of residence, and rely on digital technologies for work. They are considered distinct from more general categories of remote workers (who may have a fixed residence) and freelancers (who may work offline). As a result, they tend to be found in industries such as computer programming, digital marketing, or other creative jobs like graphic design, copywriting, or vlogging.
“Two to three years ago, not many people in China understood what digital nomadism was,” says Fu, who now runs Dali Hub, a co-working space for digital nomads, but now “more people are accepting this lifestyle.” On social media, accounts extolling the virtues of being a digital nomad (literally translated as 数字游民) are proliferating. A digital nomad couple, blogging under the name “Nomad Husband and Wife,” has garnered over 166,000 followers since 2019 on social media app Xiaohongshu. One of China’s most famous digital nomads, Jarod Zhang, has over 1,600 paid subscribers on his website, runs a Douban group with over 3,800 members, and a Discord chat with over 1,390 members including both current and prospective digital nomads.
Exact numbers in China are difficult to obtain, but there are probably now thousands of digital nomads across the country, clustered mainly in popular destinations like Yunnan’s Dali, Anji in Zhejiang province, and on the tropical island of Hainan. That’s far below the estimated 11 million who identified as digital nomads in the US in 2020, but in 2021, a survey by travel website Mafengwo found over 60 percent of users born after 1980 were eager to try being digital nomads.
Fu was traveling in South America before the pandemic, when she returned to China and stayed briefly in her home province of Hainan before going to Dali. She was drawn by the “cost-effectiveness” of Dali as well as the scenery, weather, and “openness and multicultural vibe.” Now, “I’m absolutely location independent and can arrange my own work schedule. This gives me a lot more freedom,” she says, noting she no longer endures a long commute, office politics, or competition for promotions.
Daniel Ng, a computer programmer who now runs Dali Hub with Fu, has been a digital nomad since he quit his full-time job in Malaysia in late 2019. He roamed Southeast Asia working remotely until he returned to China in August 2020. Dali Hub has grown to some 60 digital nomads, mainly working in technology, e-commerce, and creative industries. “I think more young people want more freedom,” Ng says, arguing that today’s more affluent parents are more willing and able to encourage their children to pursue their passions, compared to previous generations. “When you have fulfilled your basic needs, you look for something higher.”
Fu says her digital nomad life allows her to pursue “spiritual freedom” over material gains, but there’s no escaping that capital is a prerequisite for a life lived on the road. Countless guides to “starting life as a digital nomad” on social media platforms like Xiaohongshu, Douban, and WeChat talk about the need for start-up capital to travel and rent out a place to live and work at the beginning of one’s nomad journey, as well as a steady source of passive income such as stocks, properties for rent, or monetized social media accounts. Savings too, are a prerequisite to minimize the risk of running out of cash.
In an article on WeChat public account Oh! Youth in June 2022, a digital nomad named Way stated he quit his job in the technology sector in 2020, planning to make money writing online while traveling. In the first month, he made just 1,713 yuan, around 10 times less than his previous monthly salary. This was nowhere near enough to cover his costs on the road, so he immediately began dipping into his 200,000 yuan of savings. Eventually he made it to Dali—having been involved in a motorbike accident on the way—where he rented a place in the village with friends and began working with them on Web3 enterprises (referring to what is considered a new era of the internet that is decentralized and based on blockchain technology).
Likewise, a vlogger who goes by the name Nono posted a video titled “I Said No to the Digital Nomad Lifestyle” on video sharing platform Bilibili last year, in which she outlined why she moved back home after working and traveling remotely for 18 months in 2020 and 2021. The reasons included “a lack of stable friendships,” “no sense of home,” “no sense of security,” “trouble with medical treatment,” and “low efficiency at work” that impacted her career advancement and chances for promotion and raises.
Similar concerns are raised over and over in the comment sections underneath videos of digital nomads leading supposedly stress-free lives amid beautiful scenery and on chat forums: How do I get health insurance coverage? How do I make enough money? How do I avoid loneliness? How can I advance my career?
China’s public health insurance is tied to one’s place of permanent residence and one’s employer’s location, meaning those working remotely may not be covered for treatment they seek in other jurisdictions. Some can purchase additional private health insurance at a cost, but, “we don’t really have much of a safety net,” admits Fu.
“Interesting people of the world, unite!”
Loneliness, too, can be an issue. Zhang Cheng, a 30-year-old from Inner Mongolia who quit his job to become a digital nomad in 2017, told Phoenix News in an interview last year that he struggled to make friends while traveling, and his socializing became more and more restricted to online platforms: “It was like being isolated from the world…I would come to a place a stranger and leave as a stranger.” By 2020, Zhang had settled in Beijing.
Through Dali Hub, Ng and Fu hope to help other digital nomads overcome some of these challenges. “When I first came back to China, there wasn’t much of an ecosystem to support digital nomads,” says Fu, explaining her motivation for establishing Dali Hub. Weekly salons on common digital nomad industries, like vlogging, e-commerce, or design, help build business contacts for entrepreneurs, while events like game nights and secondhand goods swaps help newcomers make friends and get acquainted with the digital nomad community.
Furthermore, the impact of digital nomads on the local community is still a question mark. “Digital nomads’ tendency to geographical arbitrage may bring risks of disguised exploitation of the countryside,” Wu Weiyi, associate professor at Nanjing University, warns in an essay published in Social Sciences Weekly in January this year. “Geographical arbitrage” refers to the practice of taking advantage of the lower cost of living in another location or country, and is a vital strategy for digital nomads who hope to earn big-city wages while paying small-town costs.
In Dali, the cost of living and property prices have exceeded those of Kunming, the provincial capital of Yunnan province, in recent years, while local incomes have risen at a far slower rate, according to an article by Tencent Research Institute in August 2022. The hashtag “Web3 workers have made Dali almost fit to burst” was a trending topic on Weibo in August last year, generating debate about the benefits of the influx of non-local digital workers to the city.
In some cases, however, it’s the local governments who are encouraging digital nomads to take up residence in the hope of spurring the economy. In the countryside of northern Zhejiang province, 54-year-old author Xu Song opened the Anji Digital Nomad Commune (DNA) in 2022 with support from the local authorities. DNA has around 75 rooms, mostly converted from shipping containers, along with a shared kitchen, co-working spaces, and workshop facilities. Shared dormitories are available for 180 yuan per week, or double rooms for 430 yuan. The phrase “Interesting people of the world, unite!” is painted in large Chinese characters on the front of DNA’s main building.
In an interview last year with Cityzine, an urban youth lifestyle publication, Xu expressed hope that spaces like DNA will inspire young people to choose to move to rural areas. However, it’s hard to discern whether DNA represents an effective solution to the rural economy. Most of the “nomads” living and working there have full-time, salaried jobs in companies based outside of Anji. They rarely employ local villagers, and do not even have to wander into the village if they do not wish.
The main beneficiaries are the nomads, the founder Xu, and corporations who do not have to pay for office space for their employees. “The mechanism that this kind of global mobile life relies on is the global flow of information capital supported by digital technology,” wrote Wu, the professor, of the digital nomad life.
Putting down digital roots
Norbita Chen got a taste of the digital nomad lifestyle when he moved into DNA from Shanghai in January 2022. “Besides working, we went hiking together and visited nearby sights…we discovered local snacks,” Chen tells TWOC. He believes nomads promote economic growth in Anji, citing several new guesthouses that opened there in the months since DNA opened.
Inspired by his time at DNA, Chen established RW Laboratory, an online platform for remote-working job openings and tips on digital nomad life. But even for freelance or remote work, he says, “you need to be confident about your skillset in the industry to know you can work as a freelancer. Companies look for experienced and skilled workers.”
Chen does not recommend the lifestyle to everyone: “Not if you want to buy a property, or you bought one already and need to pay the mortgage,” he says. “Also, the sense of loneliness is inevitable…You need to be self-disciplined.”
Wu observed that behind the free-spirited façade, digital nomadism requires a specific set of conditions. “Contrary to the imaginary virtual home, digital nomads are extremely picky about where they live and work: they need digital infrastructure, security, transportation, climate, and a creative environment,” she wrote. Ng lays out everything he looks for: “Basically the opposite of everything Beijing stands for: no dangerous traffic, great affordability, and a vibrant arts scene that you can find in a big city; lots of dance, music, arts, and handicrafts…”
Even with all the boxes ticked, there’s no guarantee a digital nomad won’t move back to sedentary life eventually. Fu, though, will continue to look for her next destination to stay a while—at least long enough to make a vlog series for social media. “Moving can be a bit troublesome,” says Fu, “but it’s a cost I’m willing to pay for my freedom.”
Remote Freedom: The Cost of Utopia for China’s Fledgling Digital Nomads is a story from our issue, “Kinder Cities.” To read the entire issue, become a subscriber and receive the full magazine. Alternatively, you can purchase the digital version from the App Store.