Less Than Eden: China’s Rural Returnees Face an Uncertain Future
For a long time, big cities have held an irresistible allure for Chinese youth. They represent everything the countryside lacks: better educational resources, more job opportunities, and access to the wider world. For those of us born to rural families in the 1980s and 1990s, escaping the countryside through education and work was a point of pride — and returning home was a last resort.
That no longer seems to be the case. Over the past decade, the Chinese government has poured resources into rural areas, part of a broader rural revitalization project meant to attract talented young Chinese to settle in the countryside and boost “backward” rural economies. According to the Ministry of Agriculture, in 2020, 10.1 million people returned to the countryside to start businesses or engage in “innovation.”
But it is not all top-down pressure. Over the past few years, a growing number of young urbanites have fantasized about fleeing the pressures of big city life for a supposedly pastoral countryside. In a group dedicated to “countryside living” on social media site Douban, tens of thousands of young Chinese talk about early retirement to the idyllic and natural beauty of rural China.
To an extent, the movements seem at odds with one another. As the government pushes to bring urban economic vitality to rural areas, young Chinese dream of a pastoral aesthetic untainted by work and financial pressures. So, who has it right?
I was born and raised in a rural part of the eastern Anhui province, not far from the reaches of the Huai River. Prior to the recent anti-poverty drive, the region was home to half of the Anhui villages and counties classified as in “extreme poverty.” Growing up, young people in my township either went to college in the city and stayed there to work or dropped out of school and went to the city for work. Only a few have since returned, and then typically because they have gotten jobs at government agencies or schools which allow them to live in more urbanized areas rather than the deep countryside. The few young people I interviewed who did return home often joked that even their fellow villagers did not approve of their choice.
For most rural youth, the fundamental motive for both their outmigration and their later return is economic. A 2019 study of labor migration in the eastern Jiangsu province found that the choice to leave the countryside was less about the ability to earn more elsewhere, and more that there are simply no jobs in the countryside. That is, people were leaving the countryside not because urban life was better, but because they simply could not survive at home.
Lü Dewen, a researcher at Wuhan University’s China Rural Governance Research Center, has likewise argued that the choice to return to the countryside is highly dependent on local resources and market opportunities. The areas that have been most successful in luring college graduates back home are generally characterized by a higher degree of development and access to more market opportunities.
This was corroborated by my interviewees. The young people I interviewed who returned to their hometowns were often envious of the support policies available to their counterparts in rural Jiangsu and Zhejiang — two highly developed coastal provinces. In contrast, in areas such as Jiangxi, Yunnan, and Anhui, where the level of development is considerably lower, returning to the countryside often means sitting on your hands. Leaving the city is simple; figuring out what to do in the countryside is the challenge.
In some rural areas, the lack of infrastructure and modern social governance also frustrate many returnees. Take the government-pushed “toilet revolution,” for example. Although meant to provide sustainable and clean sanitation facilities to impoverished regions, the implementation of the program has been plagued by waste and extravagance, as old toilets have been knocked down while new ones remain unbuilt.
Meanwhile, most young Chinese who live in the city for extended periods come to accept and embrace a lifestyle that respects rules, privacy, and independence. In an acquaintanceship society like rural China, however, almost everybody knows everybody else, and the concept of privacy is practically nonexistent. The same goes for acceptance of alternative lifestyles. Returning youth with city-based study and work experiences are thus often caught in the middle of two value systems.
My interviewees indicated that the most common problem they encountered was the villagers’ disapproval of their lifestyle choices, including not getting married and not having children. Some, as noted above, were even mocked for the choice to return to their hometown, which, according to mainstream rural opinion, represents a step down on the social ladder. One college graduate who had worked in the southern megacity of Shenzhen for two years described to me the disdain she faced from her parents and neighbors after she quit her job and returned to the countryside to work the land. Within six months, she gave up and went back to the city.
This does not mean that rural China is a hopeless place. Rather, the competing imaginaries of it as either a pastoral idyll or a poverty-stricken wasteland fail to accurately capture what’s really going on. The Chinese countryside is vast, and conditions vary greatly from region to region. It would be more apt to use the plural term “Chinese countrysides.”
It’s important, too, to look past the overly romanticized images of the countryside popular among young Chinese and to grasp what these dreams represent. For young people fleeing the cities, it’s not that rural life is a utopian paradise; rather, the dream is a natural response to the structural exclusion many feel in big cities. One interviewee, who worked in the major southwestern city of Chengdu for four years before heading home to the countryside, stressed that her choice was rational: “When you realize that, even after working a long time, you still can’t afford a house or a car, and that you’ll never be seen as an equal by locals, and that you’ll never be able to save anything, you begin to feel deeply powerless.”
In short, what’s needed is not a dichotomy between the “good” countryside and “bad” cities, or vice-versa, but a real effort to engage with and address the inequalities that exist between and within these spaces. Only then will young people truly be free to pick the location that’s best for them.
Translator: Matt Turner; editors: Cai Yineng and Kilian O’Donnell; portrait artist: Wang Zhenhao.
(Header image: Yupiyan/E+/People Visual)