In the prefecture that contains Liangduo, Yancheng, locals’ wallets are fattening more quickly than the national rate, and their household spending — which surged 8 percent per person in 2016 — outpaced the rises in Beijing and Shanghai.
Signs of that new prosperity can be seen at Auto City, a jumble of ramshackle, boxy buildings in Yancheng where Toyota, Ford and just about every other major brand compete for customers. Zhou Zhengguo, owner of a dealership for the Chinese automaker Geely, expects to sell 2,000 cars this year, four times more than just two years ago.
“Most people who bought cars were private businessmen,” Mr. Zhou said. “Now working-class people buy, too.”
Those who live in China’s less developed places could be crucial to the next stage of China’s development.
Robin Xing, an economist at Morgan Stanley, believes consumer spending in places like Yancheng’s urban center will continue to outperform bigger cities. As a result, two-thirds of all additional private consumption growth will come from these less developed areas through 2030.
“We do expect them to catch up, to narrow the income gap with the large cities,” Mr. Xing said.
Businesses are looking at such areas in a new light. New highways and high-speed railways make relocating factories and other operations into smaller cities easier, allowing companies to take advantage of their lower costs. Industrial output in Yancheng expanded more quickly than the national rate last year.
The gains are not limited to the hinterland’s main towns. Farms are becoming bigger, more efficient and more lucrative.
In Xinling, a nearby village, Luo Jianhai, 37, is typical of a new breed of farmer-entrepreneur. He has steadily expanded the farm where he tills rice and wheat by renting land from his neighbors. He also invested in two new tractors, which he lends out to other farmers who need them to work their own larger plots. Over the past three years his annual income has increased seven times, to $100,000, and his spending has quadrupled, mainly on higher-quality clothing for his three children and a new, $17,000 car from a General Motors joint venture.
His improved lifestyle, Mr. Luo said, “is the difference between being poor and having money.”
Nearby, Cheng Zhiguo, 47, also enlarged his farm this year, increasing his net income to about $23,000 — five times greater than just three years ago. His reward: his first car, a Hyundai, bought in August.
Such change is luring urban entrepreneurs such as Zhou Jian. Mr. Zhou, a 33-year-old resident of Nanjing, a major city in eastern China, figured that large-scale farming would also need more money. In 2013, he founded Nongfenqi E-Commerce Company, which helps arrange loans for farming families from banks and other lenders.
Nongfenqi has since arranged about $150 million in loans, opened more than 100 offices spread around rural China and hired 800 employees. “The upgrading of the market allows businesses like us to serve these big farmers,” Mr. Zhou said.
Such opportunity has attracted JD.com. Over the past three years, JD.com has more than doubled its army of deliverymen, many aimed at reaching into rural towns and villages.