YUNNAN, southwest China – When Hu Shuguang, a 26-year-old software engineer, learned that his onboarding process at Google’s Tokyo office had been postponed for a year due to COVID-19, he didn’t could not have been more delighted.
He quickly decided to reject Google’s offer to move temporarily to its Beijing or Shanghai campus. Instead, he hit the road.
For the past few months, Hu has been working for the company from a variety of exotic locations: a beachfront bar on the tropical island of Hainan, a cafe in the ancient city of Zhenyuan, and a mountain inn in the province of Hainan. southwest of Yunnan.
“I have always dreamed of traveling while working, and the pandemic has given me a wonderful opportunity to do so,” Hu told Sixth Tone. “As long as the wireless connection is stable, I can work with my colleagues on three continents at any time.”
Hu is one of a small but growing number of Chinese millennials who are reinventing themselves as “digital nomads,” making a living online while roaming the country.
Hu Shuguang works remotely, in Hainan province, March 2021 (left), and Yunnan province, April 2020 (right). Diana Li for the sixth tone
Before the pandemic, the nomadic digital lifestyle was almost unheard of in China. Baidu, the country’s most popular search engine, only shows a handful of results related to the term ‘digital nomads’ published before 2020 – most of them translations of overseas blog posts .
But that has changed rapidly over the past year. Remote working – once frowned upon by most Chinese companies – has normalized amid prolonged lockdowns, with around 200 million people work from home at the height of the crisis.
Meanwhile, thousands of young people unexpectedly found themselves stranded in China, but able to book cheap domestic flights and hotel rooms. For those curious about alternative lifestyles, this was a golden opportunity.
“2021 has been the perfect time to promote digital nomadic culture,” says Daniel Ng, a pioneer of the emerging movement in China. “Many young Chinese who were working or studying abroad had to return to China to survive the pandemic and make new plans for the troubled year.”
Ng, from eastern Fujian province, is also a recent returnee. In September 2019, he quit his job as a software engineer in Malaysia and returned to China, seeking to try something new.
Daniel Ng gives a presentation on becoming a digital nomad at the Dali Hub, a coworking space he runs in Dali, Yunnan province, in October 2020. Diana Li for Sixth Tone
Rather than looking for another full-time gig, the 29-year-old made money as an independent developer and founded a coworking space for digital nomads in Dali, a quaint southwestern town known as the hippie capital of China.
The project, named Dali Hub, attracted over 200 members in its first three months, most of them vloggers, programmers and social entrepreneurs in their 20s and 30s. Ng is also planning to open another outlet in the southern seaside town of Sanya.
“I loved going to coworking spaces and chatting with digital nomads there when I was in Malaysia, but when I came back to China I couldn’t find anything like it,” says Ng. “I thought, why not make one myself?”
When he is tired of Dali, Ng organizes “coworkations” in which he invites a team of five or six people to travel with him to another part of China and work there for a few weeks. He has just completed his fourth trip to southwest Guizhou Province and will lead his team to Gansu, an arid region in northwest China, in June.
Participants in a “coworking” take a break, in Wanning, Hainan province, March 2020. Diana Li for Sixth Tone
The Chinese scene remains tiny compared to the United States, where nearly 11 million people identify as digital nomads, according to consulting firm MBO Partners. But there is a lot of potential for growth. Interest in quirky lifestyles is increasing among young Chinese: more and more Chinese are choosing to escape the frenzied race by joining early retirement movements, organic farms or even anarchist municipalities.
Still, life as a digital nomad can be difficult in China. Millennials who have tried the lifestyle say they’ve run into all kinds of issues, from lack of money to losing access to Social Security after quitting their jobs.
Financing a nomadic existence is the biggest challenge. Veteran digital nomads warn that people living this way without permanent employment must have a financial cushion or develop high levels of autonomy and self-discipline.
“To make it sustainable, you need to develop passive income, which includes regular income from a source other than an employer or an entrepreneur,” Fu Ye, an alternative lifestyle advocate, said in her recent podcast on how digital nomads are making ends meet. “You can do this by creating an information product, like a Coursera video course, and then resting while the money goes into sales.”
Fu Ye poses for a photo in Argentina, 2019. Courtesy of Fu Ye
Fu began his digital nomad journey long before the pandemic. The 28-year-old became a backpacker in Argentina after graduating from college, making money working on international education projects online.
Over time, Fu was able to generate a stable source of passive income by selling online courses teaching English and how to start working remotely. When COVID-19 hit Argentina, she returned to China and met Ng in Dali, where she helped him launch the Digital Nomad Project.
Other digital nomads tell Sixth Tone that they earn passive income through lease payments, stock and bond dividends, as well as advertisements or sponsorship income on their YouTube channels.
Lola Chen, a vlogger whose channel on learning French has more than 50,000 subscribers on the Chinese video platform Bilibili, was one of the first people to join the Dali Hub.
Prior to COVID-19, Chen worked as a project manager overseeing Chinese infrastructure projects in Africa for five years. She returned to China last year and started uploading videos to help Chinese students learn French soon after. Her main source of income now comes from an online French course, which she sells for 98 yuan ($ 15).
Left: The Bilibili channel run by Lola Chen; right: Lola Chen works in the campaign, April 2021. Diana Li for Sixth Tone
“The pandemic has made me rethink how and where I should spend the rest of my life,” says Chen, who is currently participating in one of Ng’s “coworkations”.
However, many digital nomads know that their journeys can only last for a very long time. For Dora Sun, a 29-year-old who took part in one of Ng’s recent “collaborations”, the trip was only a temporary break in her life in Shenzhen.
“I loved the wonderful time I had with you, but I also know that great things don’t last forever,” Sun told the team at his Dali farewell party last month.
For Sun, a social entrepreneur, the benefits of locating outweigh the freedom to live on the road. She plans to have a child this year and wants to secure them a place in one of Shenzhen’s elite schools. But in order to do that, she must first buy a house in the city in order to become a permanent resident.
“We Chinese were not born to be nomads,” she sighs. “We have a history of an agricultural society.”
Echo Tang, a gap year student who tried the digital nomadic life, also had to interrupt the experience. Although she made a lot of money working remotely for tech giant Tencent, she was concerned that her social security and medical insurance would be taken away after her contract with the company ended.
Hu, the Google employee, also plans to return to big-city life once Japan finally eases travel restrictions. “But it was a wonderful memory,” he says.
But Chen and Ng, the founders of Dali Hub, insist they are here for the long haul. Chen’s Bilibili channel is gaining ground in China and she hopes to continue to live off her income for many years to come.
“I’m going with the flow,” she said. “I will stay where I like.”
Once the pandemic is over, Ng even plans to embark on the international nomad. A number of territories have launched programs to attract digital nomads by offering preferential visas, including Barbados, Dubai and Estonia.
“I can hardly imagine going back to an office on a fixed schedule in a big, busy city,” he says.
Publisher: Dominic Morgan.
(Header image: Daniel Ng works outdoors in Dali, Yunnan province, April 2021. Diana Li for Sixth Tone)