Qingtian people return with wealth of experience

By YANG RAN in Qingtian county, Zhejiang| China Daily| Updated : Feb 27, 2024 L M S

Nestled in the southeastern part of Zhejiang province, the small mountainous county of Qingtian is a place of quiet beauty and unexpected global influence.

With a modest population of 568,800, Qingtian sits at the end of transportation lines, far from national borders and devoid of seaports. Yet, against the odds this secluded county has astonishingly produced over 381,000 overseas Chinese scattered across 146 countries and regions.

In Qingtian, almost every family has a relative working abroad. These overseas Chinese have been building bridges between their hometown and their host countries, turning Qingtian into a melting pot of cultures, a fusion of Chinese tradition and international flair.

Strolling through the streets of Qingtian, visitors can see over 400 coffee shops, many Western-style restaurants and European-inspired architecture, which have earned the county the nickname "China's Little Europe" on Chinese social media.

So how did Qingtian, a mountainous county, become a hub for the overseas Chinese community?

According to Yan Xiaohai, an officer from Qingtian Federation of Returned Overseas Chinese, the answer lies in a confluence of factors. The lack of arable land and frequent natural disasters such as floods pushed its people to seek livelihoods beyond their homeland.

The county's unique resource, Qingtian soapstone, which is used for carvings, gave the locals a specialty to trade with. The rise of international expositions at the end of the 19th century also provided Qingtian craftsmen with a global stage to showcase their skills.

"The earliest recorded export of a Qingtian stone carving dates back to 1880. According to the Customs Trade Report of Wenchow, Qingtian's soapstone exports weighed 4.8 (metric) tons in 1880. By 1913, annual exports peaked at an impressive 400 tons, which is a huge amount for a small county like Qingtian," said Yan.

"Since these soapstone carvings were usually sold directly by Qingtian merchants, the volume of soapstone exports mirrored the trend of migration," he added.

The export of Qingtian's soapstone carvings contributed greatly to the formation of its overseas Chinese community.

"While surrounding mountainous areas faced similar poverty, only Qingtian managed to spawn a vast number of overseas Chinese, primarily due to its booming soapstone carving exports. Around 1926, Qingtian experienced its first major wave of migration, with many locals venturing to Europe. Travelogues of that time often depicted these migrants as humble street vendors who, despite hardships, managed to earn their fortunes," Yan said.

A second wave of migration happened in the 1990s when many more Qingtianese ventured abroad to try their luck.

"Qingtian's overseas Chinese have always been characterized by a strong merchant spirit. They always attempted to engage in trade and sales from the very beginning, with the soapstone carving trade being the initial reason for their going abroad. They also adapted to local consumers' habits and sold other products accordingly," Yan said.

He said their way of doing business necessitated strong connections with their homeland, ensuring a continuous bond between Qingtian and its diaspora. "It is rare for Qingtian's overseas Chinese to sever ties with their birthplace entirely. Even those who faced obstacles like passport issues often expressed a strong desire to return and visit their roots at the earliest opportunity," he added.

Interaction evolves

As China has gone through rapid development since the launch of its reform and opening-up policy, interaction between overseas Chinese and their home has also evolved.

Zhou Yong, 51, went abroad in 1992 and stayed overseas for over two decades. Zhou recalled that in the 1990s Qingtianese who managed to settle down overseas began remitting money back home, trying to improve the living standards of their families.

This influx of foreign currency led to Qingtian being known as the top county for foreign exchange earnings. Locals often greeted each other with discussions about the fluctuation in exchange rates.

Official statistics show that Qingtian still takes in an average of more than $1 billion in annual remittances, with a yearly foreign exchange settlement of about $1.7 billion, not including the additional foreign currency brought in by returning residents.

However, at the end of the 1990s, a new trend began to emerge among the Qingtian overseas Chinese community.

Many started to look homeward with entrepreneurial ambitions. There was a notable increase in the number of overseas Chinese returning to start businesses, investing in real estate and hydropower stations, Zhou said.

"By 2015, the wave of returnees had picked up speed, with some venturing into manufacturing. These overseas Chinese were optimistic about China's economic prospects and wanted to seize the business opportunities early," he said.

The choices for returning overseas Chinese are increasingly diverse, ranging from international trade to developing local industries and even promoting Chinese products overseas.

A 2022 survey by the Qingtian local government showed that the percentage of overseas Chinese willing to return to China for investment and employment had risen from 17.6 percent in 2020 to 27 percent in 2021.

"The overseas Chinese from Qingtian, generally believe that the reason for going abroad is to come back better off. If there's an opportunity to start a business back home with a stable income, we are more than willing to do so," said Zhou, who returned in 2015 to participate in the construction of Qingtian Imported Commodity City, an imported goods trading center.

"Around 2010, the export business in Yiwu (Zhejiang) was booming, and many Qingtian overseas Chinese were engaged in selling Yiwu's products overseas. We wondered if we could also have overseas Chinese bring foreign goods back to sell," Zhou recounted.

Import trade

In 2014, Zhou and his partners organized a street fair to sell products brought back by overseas Chinese, which received an overwhelmingly positive response from locals and visitors. This success convinced them of the viability of the imported commodities business.

Zhou believes that overseas Chinese have a competitive advantage in industries that need to draw on both overseas and domestic resources.

"They have lived abroad for long periods and understand foreign cultures, which helps them to introduce foreign products to Chinese customers. They have a closer connection with foreign suppliers, which helps them secure firsthand sources of goods," he said.

Thanks to over 100,000 Qingtian natives living in Spain, the county has become an important import hub for Spanish ham, or jamon.

"In 2018 when China allowed the import of jamon in its domestic market, I imported the first leg of jamon to China," Ruan Aigao, a Qingtianese living in Spain, said in an interview with Qingtian Media Group.

Sun Chengyan, director of the development center for the overseas Chinese economic and cultural cooperation experimental zone, said: "The jamon import market in Qingtian represents more than 80 percent of the entire national market share in China, with almost all of the country's imported jamon flowing through Qingtian."

In 2023, jamon ranked as the second biggest import product in Qingtian after red wine, with sales reaching approximately 200 million yuan ($28 million), data from Qingtian Imported Commodity City showed.

The commodity center, which was founded in 2015, hosts 277 enterprises, offering over 100,000 types of imported goods from more than 70 countries and regions.

Cumulative sales exceed 17 billion yuan, earning it the nickname the "World Supermarket".

Attracting talents

Jia Xiaoyue, 45, established her business in the commodity center after venturing to Italy when she was 16 and returning to China in 2015 following local government calls for overseas Chinese to come home.

"The government probably felt that Qingtian's economic development needed some young blood, people who can sometimes think outside the box and bring creativity.

"When I started my business here, I introduced Italian jewelry brands that were not available in China," she explained.

Jia now runs an Italian restaurant and an import company and hopes to introduce imported products through the restaurant. She recruited Luigi Dellarena, an experienced Italian chef, to head the kitchen.

"At first, Luigi did not want to come, as he thought working in China wouldn't be as easy as in Italy. But I told him that in Italy people with skills such as his are common, but in China he could play a more valuable role. Gradually, I persuaded him and we managed to get him a residence permit here," she said.

Jia believes Qingtian has advantages in attracting foreign merchants and talents. "First, with over 300,000 Qingtian overseas Chinese living abroad, foreign merchants don't have to worry about being deceived by us. Second, foreigners like Italians and Spaniards normally find it easier to adapt to life in Qingtian," she said.

Jia said although Qingtian's market is small, it is an ideal first stop for expanding into the Chinese market. "Recently a close friend of mine, Maria, an Italian jewelry designer decided to start a business here."

In addition to engaging in the import-export trade, many overseas Chinese are choosing to bring new business models back home to contribute to the development of their hometowns.

Among them is Yang Xiaoai, 56, who returned to China in 2019 after being involved in restaurants and international trade in Germany and Ecuador.

Yang invested 20 million yuan to establish an agritourism base themed on the indigenous rice-fish system in Fangshan township, Qingtian. The method was listed as a Globally Important Agricultural Heritage System by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations in 2005. The base includes an agritourism hotel, experimental farmlands, and an agricultural park, to revitalize the region's unique agricultural heritage.

Yang's agritourism base has been thriving, especially after the World Conference on Globally Important Agricultural Heritage Systems held in Qingtian in 2022.

"We now have a steady stream of visitors interested in agritourism and educational travel. Last July, I hosted over 1,000 visitors from more than 40 countries," she said.

Yang also harbors ambitions for her business achievements in China to inspire the next generation of overseas Chinese to return. "We need to attract more tourists and build a robust tourism industry. If the business prospers, it could prompt a wave of overseas Chinese to return in the future," she said.

Apart from facilitating the entry of foreign products into China and developing industries, Qingtian's overseas community is helping Chinese products reach global markets.

"Some Chinese companies, despite now having strong professional capabilities, lack channels to expand globally. Qingtian's extensive overseas Chinese network can help bridge this gap," said Sun from the development center. "Baijiu enterprises from Guizhou, for instance, are eager to partner with us to market their spirits internationally. Additionally, by using the over 20,000 Qingtian overseas Chinese-operated restaurants abroad, we are actively promoting the export of agricultural products."