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Page last updated at 08:47 GMT, Tuesday, 23 December 2008

Opting out of China's rat race

By Chris Hogg
BBC News, Shanghai

The couple inside their house
Gao Hong and Yang Xiaoling fell in love with an old country house

China is celebrating 30 years of economic reform.

It was in December 1978 that former leader Deng Xiaoping declared the country would not just tolerate private enterprise but encourage it.

Since then, of course, much of the country has been transformed. Millions of people have moved from the countryside to the cities in search of a better life.

And after three decades of extraordinary economic growth, there are growing numbers of middle class Chinese with good jobs who are well-off relative to the rest of the population.

Now some of those who moved to cities like Shanghai for good wages in white collar jobs are starting to tire of the rat race, and in a reversal of past patterns of movement are abandoning the urban sprawl for a quieter life in the country.

Country life

Gao Hong and Yang Xiaoling, two advertising executives in their mid-thirties, decided a year ago to give up their lucrative careers to move to a quiet house in the country, eight hours drive from Shanghai in Jiangxi province.

They took a 40-year lease on an old house which Yang Xiaoling came across during a business trip.

Gao Hong, at home
Gao Hong says country life offers a better sense of community

"She found it when she was looking for a handmade umbrella," her husband Gao Hong explained, sitting in the sunshine in their garden on a bright but cold December morning.

Yang Xiaoling says there were several reasons why they decided to move.

She did not like their life in the city. "You work in a company like you are in a machine," she said.

"Your working life runs in a groove, you do what you're told."

"People in the city are indifferent to each other," her husband added. "Here our neighbours come and join us for meals often, they sit in the sun with us in the garden and chat all the time. We never lock our door."

"We lived in Shanghai for years but we had no contact with 90% of our neighbours. If you have no contact with your neighbour, you have no idea what kind of person they are."

'Hampering development'

The couple have blogged extensively about their new life and their reasons for choosing it.

In the tiny unheated room with wooden floors where they log on, they power up their laptop to display the large number of responses they have had from other netizens.

A vegetable patch in the village
The couple want to help villagers sell goods to the cities

"Many say that deep in their hearts they have the same ambition that we had," Yang Xiaoling explained.

But some are not so sure. One woman who called herself "Shanghai girl" chastised the couple for opting out.

"She said: 'You are 35, you should be the backbone of society, but you are choosing to abandon yourself to a life of pleasure'," Yang Xiaoling said. "She told us: 'You are misleading people, you are hampering social development'."

The couple said that after this post other netizens added comments defending them, declaring that everyone had a right to choose their own lifestyle.

"I don't pose any threat to society, and I enjoy the pleasure of farming; I think that's beautiful," said Yang Xiaoling.

'We belong'

The couple admit that it has not all been as easy and straightforward as they would have liked.

Their neighbours had to help them establish their vegetable garden because they did not really know what they were doing. They have grown enough to eat, but nowhere near enough to sell to others.

The couple walk around the village
Despite a lack of village facilities, the couple have no regrets

There are rats to deal with and the roof leaks. But they say that compared with the difficulties they faced trying to get used to urban life, these problems are not that significant.

No-one is suggesting that the couple's decision to leave the city is the start of a major trend in Chinese society.

It is clear they had made enough money to stop work and try something quite different. Relatively few Chinese would be that well off.

Gao Hong is writing a book about their experience. They say once they have finished renovating the house they may open it as a guesthouse.

They also plan to help local people sell provisions and other goods in the cities. They will live off their savings until these business ventures start to provide a return.

They say they see themselves as pioneers.

"We have lived here for more than a year, and never for a moment have we thought, this is too bad, we have got to get back to Shanghai," Gao Hong laughed.

Leaving the front door wide open, the couple go for a stroll around the village. Facilities are very basic. Some of their neighbours are washing their clothes in the stream by hand. It is like going back 50 or 60 years.

But the couple are happy. "The dogs don't bark at us now," they said. "They always bark at strangers, so we know we belong."

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