Here in this southwest Chinese mountain village, artists and tech entrepreneurs coexist with wanderers and tarot card readers. Many are ex-city dwellers looking for something that is hard to come by in Communist China: a place where people may freely speak and share views.
During a conversation hosted by a Chinese journalist regarding the American stance on the Israel-Gaza conflict, a group of young adults in one co-working space posed questions about the impact of populism during the Trump era on U.S. media. Others talked about sexual harassment, art, and the listlessness of China’s youth in a neighboring cafe.
According to Minhua Ling, an expert on Chinese migration at the Geneva Graduate Institute, Dali’s Old Town district, which is administratively part of a city with a population of 650,000, has attracted cultural workers since the late 1990s. She added that Dali’s less restrictive policies during China’s zero COVID crackdown and the normalization of remote work have contributed to the district’s appeal.
WeChat searches for “Dali” increased by 7% in November compared to the same month the previous year. This was after a day in late July when many Chinese were making travel plans for the summer, when the search volume increased by almost 290%.
Beijing has attempted to engage young people in “rural revitalization” as a response to the record-high youth unemployment that occurred this summer (when China ceased disclosing the data) and the stagnant rural population brought on by low fertility rates and urban migration.
Referring to his personal experiences during the Cultural Revolution, Xi has advised graduates to “return to their hometowns” and “actively seek hardships.” However, urban teenagers who have grown up with the promise of wealth but now struggle to achieve social mobility do not seem to find this message particularly convincing.
Dali is an exception to the young exodus to big cities that has occurred since China’s economic modernization, since many of the people asked by Reuters claimed to have found an escape from the traditional social ideals of rural China.
In September, Bai left her position in the government to become an online astrologer and relocated to Dali. She lives in a three-story home with her partner, three cats, and a friend. “My living situation provides enough space to develop my career and personal life without interference from others,” she claims.
She also cited Dali’s nickname “Ideal Kingdom”,” which is a pun on the Chinese characters and alludes to its status as an autonomous state in the tenth century, adding to its appeal.
In response to the growing official calls for marriage amid China’s population crisis, Chen Zhengyun, 37, the founder of a recruitment business, claimed that living in Dali released him from social pressure to enter into marriage at a young age.
The concentration of like-minded young people, social gatherings, and tolerance for other lifestyles, Chen said, allowed him to explore open relationships. “There are some personal topics that you can’t bring up elsewhere that you can talk about here,” he said.