How e-commerce is transforming rural China

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JD.com is expanding its consumer base with drone delivery and local recruits who can exploit villages’ tight-knit social networks to drum up business.

In isolated regions, JD.com is expanding its reach, creating on-the-ground jobs and testing drone delivery. Will villagers be less tempted to leave for the big city?

Xia Canjun was born in 1979, the youngest of seven siblings, in Cenmang, a village of a hundred or so households nestled at the foot of the Wuling Mountains, in the far west of Hunan Province. Xia’s mother was illiterate, and his father barely finished first grade. The family made a living as corn farmers, and had been in Cenmang for more generations than anyone could remember. The region was poor, irrigation was inadequate—the family often went hungry—and there were few roads. Trips to the county seat, Xinhuang, ten miles away, were made twice a year, on a rickety three-wheeled cart, and until the age of ten Xia didn’t leave the village at all. But he was never particularly unhappy. “When you are a frog at the bottom of the well, the world is both big and small,” he likes to say, referring to a famous fable by Zhuangzi, the Aesop of ancient China, in which a frog, certain that nowhere can be as good as the environment he knows, is astonished when a turtle tells him about the sea. As a child, Xia said, he was “a happy frog,” content to play in the dirt roads between the mud houses of the village.

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