How Tech Is Closing One of the World’s Widest Urban-Rural Gaps

These Asian Nations Use Tech to Bridge the Gaping Urban-Rural Divide

Living standards in Asia’s rural areas are forcing millions of people to head for the city. But China and Indonesia are using novel tech to improve resource distribution and reduce inequalities in the countryside

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12:35 PM HKT, Wed February 22, 2023 5 mins read

This article is part of our Sustainable Future series done in association with East West Bank. This article explores how innovative tech is helping to improve livelihoods in backwater towns in China and across Asia and tempering the rural-to-urban migration trend. It also examines how Singapore is bringing countryside agriculture to the urban environment.

The western portion of North America is home to a staggering number of ghost towns, with decaying monuments to the boom-and-bust cycle of resource extraction littering the landscape from Alaska through the Yukon, western Canada, and the U.S. right down into Mexico. In California alone, there are hundreds of ghost towns, many of which were once bustling mining settlements that are now deserted following the cessation of resource extraction operations in the late 18th and early- to mid-19th centuries.

In recent times, Japan faced a similar phenomenon: an epidemic of ‘akiya,’ or empty homes. Low birth rates, an aging population, and many people leaving rural villages for major metropolises have given rise to an unprecedented number of vacant properties, left with no residents, no agent, and no one interested in purchasing them.

Settlement abandonment is a problem worldwide, and many ghost towns serve as evidence of failed urbanization attempts scuttled by war, disease, and natural or manufactured disasters. Other ghost towns symbolize the fickle nature of opportunity, when a collapse of jobs, resources, or infrastructure eventually renders a place economically unviable.

But what if steps could be taken to help improve life and business in small rural settlements before they are abandoned? Many Asian nations are trying just that — taking measures to prevent rural areas from becoming ghost towns. Countries like China and Indonesia, for example, are using innovative strategies to help strengthen employment opportunities and help raise living standards outside major cities.

From ‘Hollow Villages’ to ‘Taobao Villages’

China has its very own kind of ghost town. Called ‘hollow villages,’ small towns in rural areas across China are facing a population crisis that does not only concern their size but also their composition. Young men — and sometimes women — flock to big cities to work in factories or as delivery men, leaving behind their parents and offspring, known as ‘left-behind elderly’ and ‘left-behind children.’

Besides the near-universal pattern of rural-to-urban economic migration, another factor contributing to the phenomenon of ‘hollow villages’ is China’s household registration system (known as hukou).

The hukou system prevents rural citizens from accessing free or subsidized healthcare and schooling in urban areas and often breaks families apart. While parents move to urban areas for work, children have to stay in villages where they can receive cheaper education, and it often falls on grandparents to take care of them.

an abandoned village or ghost town in china, urban-rural divide

An abandoned village in China

For more than a decade, ecommerce has represented the best way out for residents of ‘hollow villages,’ who are adept at creating a specific good and selling it nationwide on platforms like Taobao. Specialized villages have mushroomed all over China — especially in regions with better infrastructure — and earned the nickname ‘Taobao villages.’

One of these villages, Wontou in East China’s Shandong province, saw a significant bump in residents’ income since the arrival of ecommerce businesses in the early 2010s, with sales growing steadily yearly. The town’s improved economic fortunes have encouraged some people who’d left Wontou for the promise of the big city to return.

“Even some university graduates and those who have done pretty well in cities now come back to operate online stores,” a villager told South China Morning Post.

TikTok, Bees, and AI Fish Feeders

In the past few years, rural citizens in China have increasingly mastered the production and distribution of specific goods and their marketing on domestic social media.

The advent of online platforms like Douyin and Kuaishou, which combine short videos, livestreaming, and a built-in ecommerce function, make for the perfect tool for rural residents to market and sell their products in creative ways. Moreover, thanks to China’s high internet penetration rate, all this can be achieved without sellers ever leaving the countryside.

Ma Gongzuo, a beekeeper from Lishui, in East China’s Zhejiang province, is one of the millions of rural residents-turned-digital entrepreneurs who participate in China’s agricultural e-commerce industry — a market that has grown exponentially in the past few years, reaching 63 billion USD in 2021.

Now in his 30s, Ma had previously moved to the city for better employment opportunities. He then returned home when he realized technology like livestreaming would allow him to make a living without abandoning his hometown.

taobao villages, ghost towns in china, urban-rural divide

Ma Gongzuo, a beekeeper, livestreamer, and entrepreneur from Zhejiang

“In my grandpa’s eyes, selling honey is hard work and a very low-end job,” Ma tells RADII, smiling, “But it’s different now.”

The influencer sells his honey directly on Douyin — China’s version of TikTok — and helps other farmers do the same. He splits his days between his small office and the nearby mountainous area, where he shoots short videos and goes live to sell his products.

taobao villages livestreamer

Ma livestreaming

Far from being a job for lazy people, managing this kind of e-commerce business takes up to 12 hours every day. But, according to Ma, it has been gratifying.

“Because of our efforts, all these hard years of work, our living standards have improved, and our parents at home are better off, too,” he says.

Other instances of technology making living and working conditions in rural areas significantly better can be found across Asia. In Indonesia, for example, local tech startup eFishery is helping countryside fish farmers become more efficient.

a fish farmer in indonesia

A fish farmer at work in Indonesia

By leveraging automation and AI, they aim to reduce the environmental impact of the fishing industry while addressing the country’s food security issues.

Introducing their automated feeder, eFishery CEO Gibran Huzaifah tells RADII: “[Feeding the fish manually] is really hard work. With our device, the farmers can just stay home, and the system will report to them on their phones.”

Farming in the Sky

While eFishery is bringing urban technology to rural communities and effectively preventing those areas from losing their population to big cities, other metropolitan areas lack resources such as food and water, which are generally abundant in rural areas.

A prime example is Singapore, a country trying to combine urban innovation with rural agriculture — out of necessity. And while the city is at no risk of becoming a ghost town anytime soon, it faces real challenges when trying to guarantee its food security.

With a territory smaller than New York City and an entirely urban population, Singapore has no space for farming. The city imports over 90% of its food supply, becoming intensely vulnerable to inflation and disruptions in the supply chains, such as Malaysia’s ban on chicken exports in 2022 and the Covid-19 pandemic.

singapore's green architecture

A prime example of Singapore’s green architecture

The country announced its ‘30 by 30’ goal in 2019 to tackle this issue, aiming to produce 30% of its nutritional intake locally by 2030. Given the physical restraints of Singapore’s urban environment, innovative companies like Artisan Green are essential to reaching its goal.

“The concept behind vertical farming is growing plants in multiple planes, rather than just a singular plane that we usually see in outdoor crops,” Artisan Green’s founder Ray Poh tells RADII.

vertical farming

Indoor vertical farming allows for surfaces not traditionally associated with agriculture to be utilized in food production

The tech company uses vertical farming technology to grow space-saving crops, which are crucial to making the city-state more self-reliant when it comes to food security. Besides space optimization, vertical farming boasts benefits such as the absence of pesticides.

However, the innovative technology is far from free of limitations, such as the fact that lower-value crops are less profitable to grow vertically than they are for traditional farms. According to Poh: “Vertical farming isn’t here to replace outdoor farming. I think it’s here to grow hand in hand together with outdoor farmers.”

As shown by the stories of China’s rural digital entrepreneurs and startups like eFishery and Artisan Green, technology brings urban convenience to countryside areas and pastoral resources to huge metropolises across Asia, reducing the existing urban-rural divide, or in the words of Ma Gongzuo, “bringing cities and countryside closer and closer together.”

This article was made as part of our Sustainable Future series in association with East West Bank to highlight the innovative tech that’s making the world more green and regenerative. East West Bank offers unparalleled services for individuals and companies who wish to build connections and foster collaborations between the U.S. and Asia. Together, we will reach further. For more information, visit

Additional reporting by Isabel Su

Cover image designed by Haedi Yue; all other images via RADII

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