Rural Chinese Farmer Finds New Path To Wealth

Millions of young Chinese farmers have left their villages to find work in the Dickensian factories of China's coastal cities — but not everyone in the Chinese countryside wants to take that route. One farmer in Jiangsu province, seeing the opportunities afforded by the Internet, decided that he could set up a factory in the countryside and make business come to him. He saw a gap in the market and established a furniture factory, benefiting from cheaper rural costs to undercut IKEA furniture prices by 50 percent, and now earns millions selling his furniture online across China — all simply because of the Internet. He's been so successful, that Beijing has sent a team to study his business model in the hope of helping other poor rural areas do the same.

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China and its economic reforms are the subjects of this next story. Throughout that country, over the last 30 years, the model for climbing the economic ladder has been the same. Peasants leave their homes and head to the cities, where they work in Dickensian factories for low wages.

Now, some rural entrepreneurs are taking advantage of the lower rural costs to set up factories in the countryside.

Here's NPR's Rob Gifford.

ROB GIFFORD: Things are changing fast in China, but it's still unusual for a farmer to have a brand new iPhone 4. But here, sitting in his sunny but cold office in the tiny village in rural Xiangsu(ph) Province is 28-year-old Sun Han, chatting away on his beloved new gadget.

Mr. SUN HAN: (Mandarin spoken)

GIFFORD: Just five years ago, Sun was one of the army of migrants following the well-beaten path from countryside to city. He worked in a factory, and also as a security guard in Shanghai. But one day, as he was thinking about how he could improve his life a little faster, he had a light bulb moment.

Mr. HAN: (Through Translator) I went to the local IKEA store and thought, I could probably make furniture that good. IKEA's prices are quite high. We have low costs in the countryside, and so we can sell similar quality furniture for 50 percent cheaper. And that's what we've been doing.

(Soundbite of printer)

GIFFORD: Sun established his factory and now the printer in his office churns out orders as he speaks, from all over China, even from abroad.

Starting with cheap shelving, before moving up to beds and tables and chairs, his success was all achieved without even having his own website. It was all done on China's most popular online marketplace, TaoBao.com, where you can literally buy and sell anything.

Mr. HAN: (Through Translator) Most of our sales are from the Internet, especially through TaoBao. I'd say about 70 percent of our sales are from there. If there were no Internet, we'd never make this kind of money. Without the Internet, we wouldn't be able to do this at all.

GIFFORD: Sun's company now has sales of roughly a million U.S. dollars a year, he says. Not bad for five years' work by the son of a peasant farmer.

Sun says he has 400 people from the surrounding area working in his furniture business, never mind the logistics and shipping companies that have sprung up locally to deliver his furniture from the workshop he has to every corner of China.

(Soundbite of machinery)

GIFFORD: With woodcutting machines all around, one of the local Communist Party leaders - whose family name, like almost everyone in the village, is also Sun -gives a tour of the factory. He's deeply involved with the new business here. We officials have to lead the way in getting rich, he grins.

Mr. SUN (Local Leader, Communist Party): (Through Translator) You don't need to leave home and head to the cities anymore. You can make good money here in the countryside. In the past, everyone left our village, and there were no young people here at all. Now you can earn nearly $300 a month in the factory. And our young people are returning from the cities to work here.

(Soundbite of hammering)

GIFFORD: And not only are they working in the various factories and workshops in the village, some are also skipping a step in the evolutionary employment ladder. Local youngsters from rural homes, with often no more than a junior high school education, are being taught to use computers.

(Soundbite of conversations)

GIFFORD: Twenty-one-year old Miss Ye is answering questions online from buyers all over China. This is her first real job, she says, and she's paid the princely sum of $200 a month to do it - a fortune in rural China, where farmers have traditionally made little more than that in a year growing rice.

And when she's saved some money, party chief Sun says he knows where she is going to want to live. He takes visitors to a housing development on the edge of the village that looks remarkably like an urban housing development in Shanghai or another city.

Mr. SUN: (Mandarin spoken)

GIFFORD: Now people can live here just like they live in the city, he says, but it's 10 times cheaper to buy a modern house.

He gives a tour of the housing development, with its little store and playground and basketball court, and attached to each new house, a garage.

Rural society is developing he says, so of course, everyone's going to want a car. Next week, he adds, the central government in Beijing is sending an inspection team here to look at how we do things, to try to encourage others in rural China to do the same.

Rob Gifford, NPR News, Xiangsu Province, Eastern China.

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