From Bali To Dali: China’s Domestic Digital Nomads Have Arrived

    China is seeing the rise of its own digital nomad movement and remote working destinations, thanks to changing social norms.
    China is seeing the rise of its own digital nomad movement and remote working destinations, thanks to changing social norms. Photo: Shutterstock
      Published   in Travel

    This story is the second in our series on Chinese digital nomads. Read the first piece here.

    Brand designer Nian Liu took one of her first backpacking trips across Europe in 2015. The Chinese national spent her days “basking in the sun by the sea” and her evenings working on designs from different hostels, traveling with just a backpack, a laptop and a handful of personal items.

    It was late one night, in the common area of one such hostel, when someone asked her: “Are you a digital nomad?”

    “I didn't know what the term meant,” says Liu. “No, I am a graphic designer,” she remembers replying at the time. “Yes, you are a digital nomad,” the person, a French national, explained to her. “He told me with this kind of lifestyle — traveling and working with a computer, being free to choose how I spend my time and where I am based — this is called being a digital nomad.”

    This was the first time Liu was introduced to the concept. Little did she know it would launch a whole new career path for her back home in China.

    Over the years, Liu traveled to more than 150 cities around the world. But in 2020, when the pandemic began, she found herself back in the mainland as cities and regions slowly came under lockdown.

    In Dali City, a historic old town located in Yunnan province, a region famed for its lush hilly landscapes and rich tea traditions, Liu met Daniel Ng, a fellow digital nomad. The two remote workers were looking for a better sense of community both online and offline, but found that such a space did not exist. “We decided to create one ourselves,” she says.

    Today, as the co-founder of her own co-working and community space Dali Hub, Liu has become part of the rising domestic digital nomad movement in China.

    Pushing back against the “996” grind#

    According to the “2021 White Paper on Traveling and Vacationing in China” published by Mafengwo, 60 percent of young Chinese surveyed said they would like to work remotely and be based in any location of their choice. That year, millennial and Gen Z consumers made up more than 70 percent of travelers.

    Beyond the wanderlust, scenic countryside, and potential to earn an income on par with that of first-tier cities, young Chinese view the digital nomadism as a way to counter the intense “996” (9am to 9pm, 6 days a week) lifestyle that many feel defines the existence of office workers nowadays.

    Joining the digital nomad lifestyle is also viewed as a proactive counter to the prevailing “inward curling” culture, which describes being trapped in an intense competition that does not produce notable economic benefits or growth.

    “'Lying flat' and 'let it rot' are both ways to escape from '996' but they do not directly confront the issue,” said Ng. Liu echoed the sentiment: “Being a digital nomad is a better way to push back against ‘996’ because I can coordinate my time and energy the best and become the most productive when I have this level of freedom.”

    Across social media, digital nomad influencers are also on the rise. "The hours of work and the hours of rest are based on my own schedule completely,” a digital nomad named @朱利 (Juli) stated in a recent WeChat interview. “If the weather is good, I can take the day off. I plan to change places according to the seasons, so that I can always live in the most comfortable climates.”

    Who are China’s domestic digital nomads?#

    According to those like Liu and Ng, Dali Hub’s founders, China’s digital nomads tend to work across a handful of industries. They include software development, creative writing, marketing, design and creation, consulting, and tutoring. It is common for a nomad to have several online jobs at the same time, as is the case for Liu; aside from running the co-working space and being a graphic designer, she teaches dance classes as well.

    “I feel much happier than before,” explains Liu. “I’m finally doing the things I’ve wanted to do. My identity is more multifaceted… as a designer, dance teacher, cyclist, carpentry enthusiast… I feel that the breadth of my life is constantly being broadened.”

    Cost-wise, Liu notes that life in Dali is far more affordable. “When I was working in Beijing, my rent was about 5,000 RMB a month. Later, when I came to live and work in Dali, my rent was only 1,500 RMB a month.”

    Dali, Yunnan is known for its nature, ancient towns and pagodas. Photo: Unsplash
    Dali, Yunnan is known for its nature, ancient towns and pagodas. Photo: Unsplash

    Notably, a significant number of nomads in China are also Web3 professionals, suggesting that its decentralized ideals are upheld in real life by some in the industry as well. This dispels the notion that Web3 has limited influence in China and is separated from the global metaverse.

    A community-intensive approach#

    One sentiment that founders of digital nomad hubs seem to share is that users of their co-working spaces are not so much customers as they are a “chosen” community.

    “What we do is create a co-living and working space to reduce their sense of loneliness in their journeys,” says Suo Suo, the manager of DNA, a digital nomad hub in Anji, Zhejiang province.

    Likewise, Fu Ye, who became a nomad after losing interest in her job as a Beijing-based project manager for four years and is one of the three co-founders of the aforementioned Dali Hub, states, “I think a more appropriate word than ‘clientele’ is a community or a group of people.”

    Co-working spaces enhance the intimacy of the digital nomad community by enabling nomads to work and even live together in some cases. Unlike business networking, many of China’s digital nomad hubs also facilitate interest-based socializing through events such as hiking, skateboarding, book talks, and local cuisines tastings.

    Dali Hub often hosts social events to foster a sense of community. Photo: Xiaohongshu @Dali Hub
    Dali Hub often hosts social events to foster a sense of community. Photo: Xiaohongshu @Dali Hub

    Life on the edge?#

    Of course, becoming a digital nomad is not the panacea for burnt-out Chinese millennials and Gen Zers. Liu admits that there are several hurdles: “One must have a steady cash flow, strong self-discipline, and a clear sense of what to accomplish in career and in life at the same time. It is definitely not for everyone and can be quite challenging for many people.”

    There’s no guarantee that the choice will be understood and supported by one’s family and friends, either. Though Liu adds that she is lucky enough that her own family members “understand and support” her current living situation.

    While the movement’s push into the mainstream has been largely positive and eye-opening for many young Chinese, some traditionalists are concerned that the rising hype surrounding digital nomad culture in China has brought speculative investment, causing people to rush into a lifestyle that may not ultimately suit them.

    “I’m concerned that some people become interested in becoming a nomad primarily because they believe they can make or save money,” says Dali Hub's Fu, who is also the founder of a pop-up digital nomad space in Wenchang, Hainan. “Such a mentality could misconstrue the original purpose of this lifestyle.”

    Digital nomads share snippets of their life in Dali. Photo: Xiaohongshu
    Digital nomads share snippets of their life in Dali. Photo: Xiaohongshu

    Nevertheless, those who have been digital nomads for years are likely to stick to it for the foreseeable future. “Apart from irresistible forces, nothing can incentivize me to abandon my current lifestyle and go back to become an office worker,” says Ng.

    His counterpart Fu adds, “There is no reason for me to go back to big cities and settle down again. I believe that in the long term, only those projects that respect the soul of the movement will stay behind and shine.”

    As for Liu, China’s domestic digital nomad scene will only continue to rise — in popularity and acceptance. “In the post-epidemic era, the number of digital nomads will increase… Everyone has seen the possibility, and more people want to try this kind of lifestyle.”

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