Xinru Liu


Alternative Rural Development in the Age of Internet: A Close Look at E-Commerce Village Typologies in rural China

Advised by Susan Snyder and George Thomas

Taobao Villages, a name created by Alibaba Group in 2009 to mark Chinese villages heavily engaged in e-commerce, exceeded 5,400 in number in 2020. The internet-based production and business model helps villages become incorporated into the global economy through a virtual network. This phenomenon showcases a hybrid mode of living—physical/virtual and rural/urban—extended beyond the confines of the city.

This thesis looks at the impact of e-commerce in rural China and its role in transforming villages producing locally based products. Through data gathering and data analysis of the site information of 5,400+ Taobao Villages, the research discovers exemplary villages and identifies 18 different types of Taobao Villages; each represents a unique combination of product type, location, and power structure. The research analyzes these villages’ public asset distribution to help determine each typology’s characters. Focusing on the category of industrial product villages, this research compares the morphology of villages producing locally based products versus villages producing nonlocal products. The comparative study of these two types of villages reveals how immaterial resources, such as cultural heritage and local crafts, may help maintain the original social relation of the villages, resulting in a rural/urban and traditional/modern continuum. This thesis contributes to the ongoing discussion of nonbinary urban space as well as the global-local dialectic.

Digitally rendered Chinese gate and the words “Welcome To E-commerce Village” with a computer’s pointing finger cursor icon hovering nearby. Two figures below are working with their hands.  A black-and-white photograph of a street and low building with a cart in front provides the background.

Diagram of 16 E-Commerce Village typologies arranged along the spectrum from industrialization centered development to urban mode of living without the urban fabric.

Diagram of 16 E-Commerce Village typologies.

Diagram showing a comparative study of villages that produce standardized industrial products and villages that produce culture, heritage and craft products.

Animation of two map drawings showing a comparative study of the spatial morphologies of Xiaying village (left) and Xidong village (right).

Animated graph showing analysis of key assets distribution of 4188 Taobao Villages, with a colored lines rising exponentially in a curve from the lower left to the top right.