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Chen Honglei, a 26-year-old courier with Jingdong, also known as JD.com, China's second largest e-commerce company rings the bell of an apartment where he is making a delivery, in Beijing, November 20, 2013. The rise of e-commerce is giving economic refuge to the poor and nonconformists in China. (STAFF/REUTERS)
Chen Honglei, a 26-year-old courier with Jingdong, also known as JD.com, China's second largest e-commerce company rings the bell of an apartment where he is making a delivery, in Beijing, November 20, 2013. The rise of e-commerce is giving economic refuge to the poor and nonconformists in China. (STAFF/REUTERS)

China’s online markets give economic refuge to the poor and nonconformists Add to ...

Qiu Danqing’s tiny home town lies deep in the mountains of southern China, in a place far removed from the glittering lights and clogged roads that have become the image of an ascendant superpower. In the mountain villages of Hunan province, there is no public bus service. There is a weak cell signal that barely manages to filter in. There is no Internet.

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But in the early days of 2005, Ms. Qiu had a thought: what if she could find a way to drive out locally-made food and sell it on the Internet?

The rise of e-commerce in China has unleashed a torrent of spending as consumers seek to sate material impulses as they click through tens of millions of products, many of them never before available. But it’s not just buyers that are changing. It’s sellers, too. The barriers to selling goods online are remarkably low, which has allowed an extraordinary diversity of vendors to leap in to e-commerce, fostering a social and economic change often played out far from China’s major centres of commercial power.

It’s happening in the kind of place Ms. Qiu calls home.

She is a teacher, and the idea came to her when she was visiting one of her students. The family was so poor it could only slaughter a single pig a year. “They didn’t want to eat it all too quickly, so they made the meat into salted pork in the local way,” recalls Ms. Qiu. She had herself been exposed to online shopping at college. She had even set up an online shop with Chinese Internet giant Taobao in 2004. Taobao is a bit like eBay, with a vast collection of individual merchants peddling goods. Registration was free – it required only supplying an ID and a bank card, no money required – so there was no downside to experimenting, even if she had no real intention of being a merchant.

Looking at the food, though, she saw a possibility.

“The idea randomly came to me: what about helping them post the picture of the salted pork online in my Taobao shop? So I tried.”

Over the next few days the first customer inquires came in. Then, success.

“I remembered we made the first sale while we were happily celebrating the Lunar New Year,” she says. It was a single gram of salted pork, sold for 20 yuan, about $3.50 – barely enough to cover delivery.

But it was the first sale in what has now become a thriving online market, as the Internet provided a sudden conduit to buyers for local Hunan delicacies – dry radish, dry beans, spicy fish – made in a remote corner in China. Ms. Qiu’s Danqing West Hunan Specialty Shop now has nine staff, who she pays double to triple the local rates, $350 to $525 a month. It’s brought a significant new market to local food-makers, too, whose handiwork is now vacuum-packed before being sent out.

“They are all girls and I feel here is safer for them to work. They are students from the rural area’s poor families. And some of them have even left to the big city for management positions in e-commerce after training here in my store,” she says.

Elsewhere, online shops have also offered a kind of economic refuge for people labeled dissidents, who are often blacklisted from jobs. Xie Suming was arrested in 2009 for an online post critical of a local public security bureau chief. He was sentenced to a year in a labour camp.

He had previously worked in the fashion business, selling self-branded women’s clothes to wholesalers. But his business fell apart when he was sent away. Upon his release in 2010, “I had nothing to do, so I registered a shop on Taobao.”

At first, sales were bad and he gave up. But this June, he decided to put real effort into it. He bought clothes from a friend, snapped a few pictures and uploaded them to his online shop, which he asked the Globe not to identify for security purposes. It took three or four days for the first sale, a style of rosy dress that has become one of his best-sellers.

The shop has grown quickly. He now sells $1,700 to $3,500 in merchandise per month, with a 20 per cent profit rate. He has reopened a factory, which has enabled him to secure a more reliable supply. He now has a new bricks-and-mortar store, too, but says it’s so costly to run it could close any day. Selling online, particularly for someone who authorities see as marked, is simpler.

“E-commerce,” he says, “brings people a comparatively fairer business environment.”

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