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…