E-Commerce Giant Alibaba Connects Rural Residents to Online Shopping

Last fall, 30-year-old Luo Rong quit his $30,000-a-year engineering job in Shanghai, moved back to his mountaintop village of Jade Peak with his wife and newborn baby and opened a shop with a big orange and green sign out front.

The store is thinly stocked. There are a few packages of seeds, Skittles candy, some sweaters, sneakers and laundry soap -- but no lack of customers.

The main draw is Luo's computer and the big-screen display perched above him on the wall -- both provided by the Chinese e-commerce giant Alibaba. From 7:30 a.m. to 11 p.m., breaking only for meals at his parents' house, Luo pecks away at his keyboard, helping his technology-challenged neighbors buy fertilizer, TVs and even electric cars on an Alibaba shopping site called Rural Taobao. Luo arranges the payments, as well as delivery to Jade Peak, and earns a commission from the sellers.

"This is going to change the whole village," said Luo Laibing, a 56-year-old farmer who stopped by on Tuesday to purchase more than 1,000 pounds of fertilizer. "It's saving us money and time, and is making life much more convenient."

Rural Taobao is an ambitious effort by Alibaba to turn China's 600 million rural residents into online shoppers -- and sellers -- at a time when the company's growth in transactions is slowing and China's economic growth has ebbed to a 25-year low. In the last year and a half, the company has enlisted more than 15,000 village "partners" like Luo Rong and hopes to have at least 40,000 by this time next year. Alibaba says it plans to invest $1.6 billion in the effort through 2019, with the ultimate goal of opening 100,000 Rural Taobao centers.

But the company is hardly going it alone. It's getting a big helping hand from the government, which is footing...

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