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Streams Connecting
a Nation

China’s boom in e-commerce opens new income opportunities in remote outposts.

Every day in her village 3500m above sea level high on the Qinghai-Tibetan Plateau in China’s giant, landlocked Qinghai Province, Tashi Drolma, a housewife from Jiangxigou Township in Hainan Autonomous Prefecture, undertakes an arduous list of chores.

Her routine is one that is steeped in history. In addition to household tasks, she puts cattle out to pasture, plants highland barley, and helps out in a small family-run store. The gregarious housewife rarely complains; after all, she assumes a role that generations of Tibetan women before her have.

But, in the evenings, Tashi’s daily life takes on a more outward-facing guise.

From her home, she uses her smartphone — still a relative rarity in these remote areas — and live streams on Taobao, China’s largest e-commerce marketplace, for around six hours.

Tashi sells local products like yellow mushrooms and yak meat. Her most lucrative sales come from rare medicinal caterpillar fungus, sourced from the slopes of the surrounding mountains.

As diverse as it is vast, China encompasses myriad terrains and cultures. While the nation’s ultra-modern, hyper-connected major cities are advancing to the future, time feels suspended in the open countryside that remains rooted in tradition.

New technologies such as live streaming are opening up windows into these little-known remote idylls.

Not only are they allowing people in remote areas to participate in the global economy, but they are also offering entrepreneurs around China the opportunity to develop new avenues of income.

It was Tashi Drolma’s daughter Jamyang who prompted her mother’s journey into e-commerce. The teenager had ordered a T-shirt on Taobao, and it arrived three days later; Tashi explored the platform and could see just how in-demand local products were across China.

She saw the opportunity to create an income stream through the long winter months when her family store receives little business. Not a native speaker, she motivated herself to learn Mandarin by watching TV news and dramas and established her e-commerce store.

The venture has been a huge hit. On good nights Tashi can earn as much as $1500 and her success has inspired others within the local community. After some initial resistance from neighbors, Tashi’s e-commerce live streaming endeavors are viewed with respect.

He came here, telling us there’s a national project aimed at reducing poverty through e-commerce and that it’s appropriate to put the credential in our home.

Tashi, on the town mayor’s visit after hearing about her success

Now she helps other villagers sell items like handmade accessories, sewn goods, and other local crafts. Tashi’s ambition and success have influenced other women in the community to follow in her footsteps. Young girls are looking up to Tashi and re-evaluating traditional roles and are exploring educational and employment opportunities outside the village.

Tashi’s e-commerce success mirrors others in China; according to the National Bureau of Statistics of China, online retail sales of physical goods increased by 14.8% in 2020.

The e-commerce live streaming trend shows no sign of losing momentum. It links people all over China, offering learning tools, creating connections, and uncovering growth opportunities for live streamers. It’s a boon for provincial economies, with entrepreneurs now able to sell specialty products across the country at a reasonable cost with low overheads.

In Jiangxigou Township, Dorje Drolma — Tashi’s sister-in-law and fellow live streamer — is preparing to broadcast. As she readies her smartphone, she gazes wistfully through the living room window at the frozen winter landscape outside. She’s never left Qinghai Province, but her horizons are broadening.

In this small room, I can see the outside world.

Dorje Drolma — Tashi’s sister-in-law