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Taobao eases social ills in China’s villages

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By Wesley Wu-Yi Koo

Behind China’s impressive economic rise is the biggest human migration in history. By 2013, some 269m rural residents had become migrant workers in cities, offering cheap labour and sustaining urban growth. However, unable to register and settle their family members in the cities, these migrant workers are forced to leave behind children, spouses, and old people in the villages. This has taken a tremendous toll on the rural society.

在中国令人叹为观止的经济增长背后,是历史上最大规模的人口流动。截至2013年,约有2.69亿农民进城当了农民工,给城市提供了廉价劳动力,支撑着城市的发展。然而,由于无法在城市落户和接家人来城市定居,这些农民工不得不将孩子、配偶和老人留在村子里。这给农村社会带来了严重损害。

 

Today, there are 61m “left-behind children” and 40m “left-behind elderly” in Chinese villages. Some 79 per cent of the left-behind children are under the care of grandparents, who are often uneducated and lack parenting resources and energy. As a result, the academic scores of 88 per cent of these children fall below what would be the passing line in cities.

如今,中国农村有6100万“留守儿童”、4000万“留守老人”。近79%的留守儿童由祖父母照料。这些老人往往没念过书,也缺乏养育孩子的资源和精力。结果,88%的留守儿童的学习成绩达不到城市里的及格线。

 

The rural elderly, separated from their children, record an average suicide rate of 0.5 per cent, five times the rate for urban elderly. Villages, which have been the backbone of Chinese society for thousands of years, are falling apart. Reality paints a bleak picture of marginalisation, but there exists a beam of hope.

同子女分隔两地的农村老人平均自杀率达0.5%,是城市老人的5倍。几千年来一直是中国社会支柱的农村正在分崩离析。虽然现实勾画出了农村被边缘化的暗淡前景,但我们依然看到了一线希望。

 

In the past decade, the rise of e-commerce has transformed China’s economic landscape, with more than 300m active online shoppers today. A lesser-known trend is that e-commerce has begun to vitalise the rural economy as well. In 2013, roughly 2m out of the 8m online stores on taobao.com and tmall.com – two large e-commerce platforms – were registered in rural areas.

过去10年,电子商务的兴起彻底改变了中国经济格局。如今,活跃的网购者已逾3亿。一个较不为人知的趋势是,电子商务也开始为农村经济注入活力。2013 年,中国两大电商平台淘宝网(taobao.com)和天猫(tmall.com)的800万在线商户中,约有200万是在农村地区注册的。

 

In early 2014, China had just 20 “taobao villages”, classified as those villages in which at least 10 per cent of the population is involved in the selling of goods online or those in which annual revenues from those sales surpasses Rmb 10m. But by the end of 2014, there were 211 such villages.

2014年初,中国只有20个“淘宝村”。但到2014年末,这样的村子增加到了211个。所谓“淘宝村”,是指村中至少有10%的人口做网店生意,或者全村的在线商品销售年收入超过1000万元人民币。

 

The impact of taobao villages extends far beyond the generation of wealth. It is also helping to moderate the more deleterious effects of urbanisation. Our field research has indicated that e-commerce in some areas has helped reverse the labour drain and brought families back together.

淘宝村的影响远大于其创造的财富。它还有助于缓解城市化带来的较为负面的影响。我们的实地调研表明,在一些地区,电子商务已帮助逆转了劳动力的外流、让家人重新团聚。

 

A case in point is Dongfeng, a village of 1,200 households. Just ten years ago, most young people from Dongfeng were working in the cities. Some said that during that time if an elderly person died, the village “would not be able to muster four able-bodied men to carry the coffin”.

有1200户居民的东风村就是一个例子。就在10年前,东风村的大多数年轻人还在城市务工。一些人说,那时候,如果村里有老人去世,整个村子“都凑不出四个身强力壮的人来抬棺材”。

 

However, since the creation of stores in Dongfeng selling Do-It-Yourself furniture online, the village’s social structure has been transformed. Youngsters are now much more likely to stay in their village, and college students from Dongfeng also tend to make their way back after graduation. It is also common for the elderly to help with their children’s online businesses, leading to a richer labour force and feeling of self worth.

但是,自从东风村村民开起了卖DIY家具的网店后,该村的社会结构就发生了彻底改变。年轻人现在远比以前更有可能留在村里,村里出去读大学的学生毕业后也倾向于回村。老人帮子女打理网店也很常见,这让村里的劳动人口变得更加富裕,也让他们感受到了自己的价值。

 

Another example involves Wantou, which is known for the traditional craft of willow-weaved baskets. In 2006, a few villagers started selling baskets online. Their initial success demonstrated that, through e-commerce, producers of baskets could skip the economic middleman, access the market directly, and retain a significant portion of the profit.

以传统手工草柳编篮子出名的湾头村是另一个例子。2006年,一些村民开始在网上卖篮子。他们的初步成功表明,通过电子商务,篮子的生产者可跳过经济环节中的中间商,直接对接市场,并保留很大一部分利润。

 

Over time, villagers who had previously been migrant workers gradually came back to Wantou and set up their own stores online. Today, Wantou is known as a “three no village” – no lonely elderly, no left behind children, and no divorces due to physical separation caused by migration.

随着时间的推移,之前外出务工的村民逐渐返回湾头村,开起了自己的网店。如今,湾头村被称为“三无”村:无孤寡老人,无留守儿童,无夫妻因外出打工两地分居而离婚。

 

How is e-commerce able to penetrate rural areas and drive social change? First, e-commerce allows villagers to work close to their families and with their families. This is because it can provide villagers with access to the national market in even the most remote locations.

电子商务如何能够渗透到农村地区并推动社会变革?第一,电子商务让村民得以和家人一起在离家近的地方工作。这是因为即使身处最偏远的地区,电子商务依然能让村民直接对接全国市场。

 

Second, e-commerce, compared to offline business, has a far lower barrier to entry. Initial requirements rarely exceed Rmb 5,000 and access to basic infrastructure (e.g. mobile phone, roads). Third, the development of an e-commerce ecosystem creates an ambiance for learning.

第二,与线下生意相比,电子商务的门槛低得多。需要的启动资金很少超过5000元人民币,而且只需具备基本的基础设施(比如手机和公路)就可开业。第三,电子商务生态系统的发展营造了学习的氛围。

 

Our preliminary results indicate that numerous taobao villagers, ranging from elementary school pupils to seventy-five-year-olds, are picking up computer knowledge and business communication skills. These learning opportunities not only render a village more competitive economically, they also help build, attract, and retain talent, safeguarding the village from the pernicious side of urbanisation.

我们的初步结果表明,上至75岁的老人,下到上小学的孩子,无数淘宝村村民都在学习电脑知识和商业沟通技巧。这些学习机会不仅使村子更有经济竞争力,还有助于村子培育、吸引和留住人才,保护村子免受城市化负面影响的冲击。

 

The social challenges associated with mass urbanisation are not unique to China. Regions such as Uttar Pradesh in India and Kentucky in the United States are also facing issues including mass brain drain and dwindling villages.

大规模城市化所伴随的社会挑战不仅出现在中国。印度北方邦(Uttar Pradesh)和美国肯塔基州等地区,也面临人才大量流失和农村地区萎缩的问题。

 

The ongoing development of e-commerce in taobao villages demonstrates that, in an increasingly connected world, the rural society does not have to be overturned for urbanisation to take place. Instead, villages can ride the wave of urbanisation toward building an economically viable and socially integrated future.

淘宝村电子商务的不断发展表明,在一个日益互联的世界里,推进城市化不一定要以颠覆农村社会为代价。相反,农村可以搭上城市化的大潮,建立一个具有经济可行性和社会融合性的未来。

2016-06-23

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